Crowds Clash With Police In China As Beijing Cracks Down On Covid Protests


Demonstrators clashed with hazmat suit-clad riot police in China’s megacity of Guangzhou on Tuesday night, according to social media posts and news reports, the latest in a series of protests against Beijing’s harsh Covid curbs in a rare display of public dissent against the country’s authoritarian rulers amid record infections.

Key Facts

Videos posted on social media Tuesday night showed crowds facing off against police and security personnel wearing hazmat suits in China’s southern city of Guangzhou, a major manufacturing hub.

Various footage from the city shows police marching down streets with riot shields in formation, tear gas canisters being thrown into crowds, protestors throwing objects at police and people being arrested.

The unrest comes amid rising anger over President Xi Jinping and his government’s dogged pursuit of zero-Covid, fitting within a wider wave of demonstrations across the country in cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing and Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified.

Protests in most cities diminished or faded on Monday after police reportedly flooded the streets in response to demonstrations over the weekend and students were sent home from some universities, with officers checking people’s cell phones in the street and even calling people warning them against returning.

The Chinese government has done little to directly address the protests but on Tuesday the country’s leading security authority vowed to “relentlessly crack down” on “hostile forces” and “maintain overall social stability.”

The statement, potentially signaling a tough government response on the horizon, did not mention the demonstrations nor the rare public calls to oust Xi.

Crucial Quote

Through its strict adherence to zero-Covid, China is the sole major country still pushing to eliminate Covid-19 and the rest of the world is paying close attention. The strict policy, particularly the fact there appears to be no exit strategy or plans to learn to live with the virus, has been questioned numerous times. Beijing’s response to the demonstrations is also under scrutiny. On Wednesday, Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Ambassador to China, said the country’s people “have a right to protest peacefully,” according to the Financial Times. “That’s a fundamental right around the world—it should be—and that right should not be hindered with, and it shouldn’t be interfered with,” Burns added. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday also defended the right of Chinese people to protest and express themselves in light of the demonstrations. “Everyone in China should be allowed to express themselves, should be allowed to share their perspectives and indeed protest,” Trudeau said, according to Reuters.

Big Number

5,233. That’s how many Covid deaths there have been in China since the start of the pandemic, according to government data collated by Our World In Data. The figure, in a country with a population of more than 1.4 billion people, gives China one of the lowest death rates in the world. Cases, of which China reports nearly 1.6 million since the start of the pandemic, are similarly slim and pale in comparison to countries like the U.S. Though the global community has frequently questioned China on the veracity and accuracy of its reporting, its strict policies have undoubtedly helped keep the worst of the pandemic at bay for the last three years.

Key Background

Zero-Covid—more fully, “dynamic zero Covid”—is Xi’s signature pandemic policy and the cornerstone of Beijing’s coronavirus response. Unlike the overwhelming majority of countries around the world, the aim of zero-Covid is to eliminate the virus instead of just managing it. Beijing’s implementation is harsh and unyielding, with entire cities going into lockdown and widespread compulsory testing over a few cases. There are reports of people being unable to leave residences—even during earthquakes—being placed under surveillance by guards and drones, as well as accounts of food shortages and people fleeing stores and factories to avoid being locked inside. Though protests over the rules in China have not been uncommon, the recent demonstrations have shown a different nature. In a display of defiance rarely seen in China, they also criticized Xi personally for the policy.

News Peg

The death of 10 people in an apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi last week—many claim Covid restrictions prevented people from escaping or help from arriving on time—is one of the key triggers for recent unrest. Authorities deny the restrictions had anything to do with the deaths. Covid cases in China are also at a record high despite the curbs, at around 40,000 a day. For context, the U.S. has maintained around the same figure since mid-October, a fairly low point during the pandemic and well off rates of around 130,000 in July and a peak of 800,000 in January.

What To Watch For

It is unclear what options are open to Beijing to abandon zero-Covid, should it choose to do so. China has very poor vaccination rates, particularly among the elderly, with shots of lackluster efficacy and a dearth of natural immunity from widespread infections seen in other countries. While most experts, including the World Health Organization head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have criticized the policy as unsustainable and ineffective, China is also poorly placed to remove restrictions without triggering a “tsunami” of cases and deaths. Officials have already announced a campaign to improve vaccine coverage among the elderly.

Further Reading

Covid Protests Further Diminish Business Trust And Ties To China (Forbes)

China’s Zero-Covid Strategy: What Is It, Why Are People Protesting And What Comes Next (Forbes)

China’s lockdown protests and rising COVID leave Xi Jinping with ‘2 bad options’ (NPR)

What China’s Protesters Are Calling For (NYT)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus

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