China’s anti-virus protests hit Hong Kong after rallies on the mainland

China’s anti-virus protests hit Hong Kong after rallies on the mainland

HONG KONG (AP) – Students in Hong Kong chanted “against the dictatorship” Monday to protest China’s COVID-19 rules after mainland protesters issued an unprecedented call for President Xi Jinping to resign in the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in the last few decades.

Rallies against China’s unusually strict anti-virus measures spread to several cities over the weekend, and authorities eased some regulations, apparently to try to quell public anger. But the government has shown no sign of abandoning its broader coronavirus strategy and analysts they expect the authorities to quickly silence dissent.

With the police out in force on Monday, there was no word of protests in Beijing or Shanghai. But around 50 students sang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and some lit candles in support of those in mainland cities demonstrating against restrictions that have confined millions of people to their homes. Hiding their faces to avoid official retribution, the students chanted: “No PCR tests, but freedom!” and “Resist dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”

The rally and similar ones elsewhere in Hong Kong were the biggest protests there in more than a year under rules imposed to crush the pro-democracy movement in the territory, which is Chinese but has a legal system separate from the mainland.

“I’ve wanted to speak for a long time, but I haven’t had the chance,” said James Tsai, a 29-year-old from Shanghai who attended the protest in Hong Kong and held up a piece of white paper, a symbol of defiance against the ruling party’s sweeping censorship. “If the people on the mainland can’t tolerate it anymore, neither can I.”

It is not clear how many people have been detained since the protests began on Friday, provoked anger over the death of 10 people in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Some wondered if firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls.

Without mentioning the protests, criticism of Xi or the fire, some local authorities eased restrictions on Monday.

The Beijing city government has announced that it will no longer install gates to block access to infected apartments.

“Passages must remain clear for medical transport, emergency escapes and rescues,” said Wang Daguang, the city’s official in charge of epidemic control, according to China’s official news service.

Guangzhou, the manufacturing and trading center that is the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, has announced that some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing.

Urumqi, where the fire broke out, and another city in the northwestern Xinjiang region announced this week that markets and other businesses in areas considered to be at low risk of infection would reopen and public bus services would resume.

“Zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped keep the number of cases in China lower than those in the United States and other major countries. But tolerance of the measures has waned as people in some areas are confined to their homes for up to four months and say they do not have reliable access to food and medical supplies.

In Hong Kong, protesters at the Chinese University put up posters that read: “Don’t be afraid. Do not forget. Don’t Forgive,” and sang including “Do You Hear The People Sing?” from the musical “Les Miserables”. Most hid their faces behind blank white sheets of paper.

“I want to show my support,” said a 24-year-old mainland student who would only identify herself as G for fear of reprisals. “I care about things I couldn’t get to know in the past.”

University security recorded the event, but there was no sign of the police.

At the event in Central, the business district, about four dozen protesters held blank sheets of paper and flowers to mourn the victims of the Urumqi fire and others who died as a result of the “zero COVID-19” policy.

Police cordoned off the area around the protesters, who stood in small, separate groups to avoid violating pandemic rules that prohibit gatherings of more than 12 people. The police took information about the identity of the participants, but no arrests were made.

Hong Kong has tightened security controls and abolished Western-style civil liberties since China launched a campaign to kill the pro-democracy movement in 2019. The territory has its own antivirus strategy that is separate from the mainland.

On the mainland, the ruling party promised last month reduce interference by changing quarantine and other rules. But a sudden increase in infections it prompted cities to tighten controls.

On Monday, the number of new daily cases rose to more than 40,000, including more than 36,000 without symptoms.

The ruling party’s People’s Daily has called for effective implementation of its anti-virus strategy, indicating that Xi’s government has no plans to change course.

“The facts have fully proven that every version of the prevention and control plan has stood the test of practice,” wrote a People’s Daily commentator.

Protests also took place in Guangzhou near Hong Kong, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest and Nanjing in the east, according to witnesses and video posted on social media.

Most protesters complained of excessive restrictions, but some turned their anger on Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s. In a video confirmed by the Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted: “Xi Jinping! Get off! CCP! Get off!”

British Broadcasting Corp. reported that Shanghai police beat, kicked, handcuffed and detained him for several hours, but later released him.

The BBC criticized, as he said, the explanation of the Chinese authorities that their reporter was detained to prevent him from contracting the corona virus from the crowd. “We do not consider this a credible explanation,” the broadcaster said in a statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the BBC reporter did not identify himself and “did not voluntarily present” his credentials to the press.

Foreign journalists must consciously follow Chinese laws and regulations, Zhao said.

Swiss RTS television announced that its correspondent and cameraman were detained during the live broadcast, but were released a few minutes later. The AP journalist was detained but later released.


Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed.

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