Barely a month after granting himself new powers as China’s potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger of the kind not seen for decades, sparked by his “zero COVID” strategy that will soon enter its fourth year.
Demonstrators poured into the streets over the weekend in cities including Shanghai and Beijing, criticizing the policy, confronting police — and even calling for Xi to step down. On Monday, demonstrators gathered in the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong, where the pro-democracy movement was all but snuffed out by a harsh crackdown following monthslong demonstrations that began in 2019.
At the White House, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reiterated to reporters that the Biden administration supported peaceful protests.
Kirby said this was “a moment to reassert what we believe in when it comes to free assembly and and peaceful protest.”
“Whether it’s the people protesting in Iran or China or anywhere else around the world, nothing has changed about the president’s firm belief in the power of democracy and democratic institutions and how important that is.”
He added that Biden would be watching events in China “closely.”
The widespread demonstrations are unprecedented since the army crushed the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Most protesters focused their anger on restrictions that can confine families to their homes for months and have been criticized as neither scientific nor effective. Some complained the system is failing to respond to their needs.
The cries for the resignation of Xi and the end of the Communist Party that has ruled China for 73 years could be deemed sedition, which is punishable by prison.
The possibility of more protests is unclear. Government censors scrubbed the internet of videos and messages supporting them. And analysts say unless divisions emerge, the Communist Party should be able to contain the dissent.
China’s stringent measures were originally accepted for minimizing deaths while other countries suffered devastating waves of infections, but that consensus has begun to fray in recent weeks.
The party has long imposed surveillance and travel restrictions on minorities including Tibetans and Muslim groups such as Uyghurs, more than 1 million of whom have been detained in camps where they are forced to renounce their traditional culture and religion and swear fealty to Xi.
But this weekend’s protests included many members of the educated urban middle class from the ethnic Han majority. The ruling party relies on that group to abide by an unwritten post-Tiananmen agreement to accept autocratic rule in exchange for a better quality of life.
China is now the only major country still trying to stop transmission of the virus that was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.
The normally supportive head of the World Health Organization has called “zero COVID” unsustainable. Beijing dismissed his remarks as irresponsible, but public acceptance of the restrictions has worn thin.
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