China has seen waves of protest across some of its biggest cities since the weekend, with anger over draconian Covid lockdowns feeding broader frustration over the country's political system
Beijing (AFP) - Clashes broke out between police and protesters in a southern Chinese city, part of a wave of Covid lockdown-sparked demonstrations across the country that have morphed into demands for political freedoms.
China’s top security body warned late on Tuesday night that authorities would “crack down” following the protests, which are the most widespread since pro-democracy rallies in 1989 that were crushed with deadly force.
The demonstrations erupted over the weekend across major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, with China’s vast security apparatus moving swiftly to smother any further unrest.
But new clashes broke out in China’s southern city of Guangzhou on Tuesday night and into Wednesday, according to witnesses and social media footage verified by AFP.
Police vehicles are seen next to Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai after protests there
Security personnel in hazmat suits formed ranks shoulder-to-shoulder, taking cover under see-through riot shields, to make their way down a street in the southern city’s Haizhu district as glass smashed around them, videos posted on social media showed.
In the footage people could be heard screaming and shouting, with orange and blue barricades strewn across the ground.
People are seen throwing objects at police, and later nearly a dozen men are filmed being taken away with their hands bound with cable ties.
A Guangzhou resident surnamed Chen told AFP on Wednesday that he had seen around 100 police officers converge on Houjiao village in Haizhu district and arrest at least three men on Tuesday night.
Some students at Guangzhou’s universities said they were forced out of their dormitories overnight Wednesday, according to social media posts, as a growing number of universities nationwide ordered students home in the wake of campus demonstrations.
Multiple Guangzhou districts lifted restrictions on some or all locked-down neighbourhoods Wednesday afternoon, according to government announcements.
- ‘Crackdown’ looms -
Anger over China’s zero-Covid policy – which involves lockdowns of huge numbers of people and has strangled the economy – has been the trigger for the protests.
A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, was the catalyst for the outrage, with people blaming Covid curbs for trapping victims inside the burning building.
But demonstrators have also demanded wider political reforms, with some even calling for President Xi Jinping to stand down.
China’s strict control of information and continued travel curbs have made verifying protester numbers across the vast country very challenging.
Protesters demonstrate at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday
However, the widespread rallies seen over the weekend are exceptionally rare in China.
The 1989 pro-democracy protests ended in bloodshed when the military moved in, most famously in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and surrounding areas.
And the Wednesday news of the death of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin – who came to power just after Tiananmen – saw state media emphasise his role in that crackdown.
“During the serious political turmoil in China in the spring and summer of 1989, Comrade Jiang Zemin supported and implemented the correct decision of the Party Central Committee to oppose unrest,” state broadcaster CCTV said.
Some internet users used Jiang’s death to juxtapose the more liberal 1990s with rule under Xi, China’s most hardline ruler in decades.
“The Jiang era, while not the most prosperous era, was a more tolerant one,” one Weibo user wrote.
Signalling its zero-tolerance approach to the protests, China’s top security body on Tuesday called for a “crackdown” on what it described as “hostile forces”.
The body – which oversees all domestic law enforcement – also agreed at a meeting that it was time to “crack down on illegal criminal acts that disrupt social order” as well as “safeguard overall social stability”.
The warning came after a heavy police presence across Beijing and Shanghai on Tuesday appeared to have quelled protests in those cities.
- ‘Give me liberty’ -
Some rallies did go ahead elsewhere on Monday and Tuesday, however.
At Hong Kong’s oldest university, over a dozen people led the crowd Tuesday in chanting slogans such as “give me liberty or give me death”.
“We are not foreign forces, we are Chinese citizens. China should have different voices,” one woman shouted, while another held a placard mourning victims of the Urumqi fire.
In response, the semi-autonomous city’s security chief warned Wednesday that protesters may be falling foul of the territory’s national security law, imposed in 2020 by Beijing.
A demonstrator speaks to the crowd at a candlelight vigil at the University of Southern California
In Hangzhou, just over 170 kilometres (105 miles) southwest of Shanghai, there was heavy security and sporadic protests in the city’s downtown on Monday night.
One witness told AFP that “maybe 200” policemen and security personnel had surrounded the protesters, before forcing a number of young women into a van.
The latest unrest has drawn global attention, with solidarity protests springing up from Melbourne to Washington.
And while China’s leaders are committed to zero-Covid, there have been some signs that central authorities may be seeking a path out of the rigid policy.
China’s National Health Commission announced Tuesday a renewed effort to expand low vaccination rates among the elderly – long seen as a key obstacle to relaxing the measures.