China's COVID protests
Protests continued across China and spread to Hong Kong on Monday over President Xi Jinping's strict "zero COVID" policies, even as authorities took steps to tamp down the protests and defuse the anger underpinning the unusually broad show of public dissent.
Police showed up in force at places protesters gathered over the weekend, and they checked smartphones at transportation gateways in Shanghai for foreign apps like Twitter and Telegram and for virtual private networks (VPNs). Several protesters were arrested. Other people who participated in protests over the weekend are now being contacted by police, BBC News reports. "We are all desperately deleting our chat history," one Beijing protester told Reuters.
Chinese universities also started sending students home after the weekend's protests, including at several prestigious universities, The Associated Press reports. The universities said the students were being dispersed to protect them from COVID-19, and classes and final exams would be conducted online. "But dispersing them to far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more activism" like the protests that flared up over the weekend, AP notes.
On Monday, students at Beijing's Peking University and alumni from Tsinghua University, Xi's alma mater, posted letters demanding an end to China's invasive health surveillance system, mandatory testing, and censorship. China's zero COVID policy's "negative impact" has "become more obvious," the Peking University letter said. "It has even gone beyond the damage the pandemic itself does to the society."
At the same time, some local governments started loosening COVID restrictions Monday and the central government stepped up its vaccination of vulnerable seniors. Authorities tried loosening restrictions earlier in the month, but the resulting spike in infections led them to clamp down again, helping fuel the protests.
Xi's push to maintain zero COVID cases has kept China's death toll lower than in other large countries, but international public health officials see diminishing returns as the virus mutates and becomes more contagious. And three years of the sudden lockdowns and other restrictions have clearly worn on the patience of China's citizenry.
"Obviously, there are people in China that have concerns about" the zero COVID polices, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday when asked about the protests. "These protesters are speaking for themselves," he added. "What we are doing is making it clear that we support the right of peaceful protest."