HONG KONG (AP) — Students in Hong Kong chanted “against dictatorship” in protest of China’s COVID-19 rules Monday 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 decades.
Rallys against China’s unusually strict anti-virus measures spread to several cities over the weekend, and authorities eased some regulations, apparently in an effort to quell that public anger. But the government has shown no sign of backing away from its larger coronavirus strategy, and analysts expect the authorities to quickly silence dissent..
With the police out in force on Monday, there were no reports of protests in Beijing or Shanghai. But about 50 students sang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and some lit candles in a show of support for those in mainland cities who have demonstrated against restrictions that have confined millions to their homes. Hiding their faces to avoid official reprisals, the students chanted, “No PCR tests but freedom!” and “oppose dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”
The rally and a similar gathering elsewhere in Hong Kong were the biggest protests there in more than a year under rules imposed to crush a pro-democracy movement in the territory, which is Chinese but has a separate legal system from the mainland.
“I wanted to speak for a long time, but I didn’t get the chance to,” said James Kay, a 29-year-old from Shanghai who attended a protest in Hong Kong and held up a white paper, symbolizing defiance of the ruling party’s rampant censorship. “If the people of the mainland can’t stand it anymore, then I can’t either. “
It was not clear how many people had been arrested since the protests began on Friday, sparked by outrage 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 or criticizing Xi or the fire, some local authorities eased restrictions on Monday.
The Beijing city government has announced that it will no longer set up gates to prevent access to residential complexes where there are infections.
“Corridors should remain clear of medical transports, emergency escapes and rescue operations,” said Wang Daguang, a city official in charge of epidemic control, according to the official Chinese news service.
Guangzhou, the manufacturing and commerce hub that is the biggest hot spot 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 occurred, and another city in the northwest region of Xinjiang, announced that markets and other businesses in areas deemed to be at low risk of infection will reopen this week and public bus service will resume.
“Zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped keep case numbers in China lower than those in the United States and other major countries. But the measures have been tolerated, with people in some areas confined to their homes for up to four months and who say they lack reliable access to food and medical supplies.
In Hong Kong, Chinese University protesters put up posters reading, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t forget. Don’t forgive,” and sang including “Do You Hear People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables. Most hid their faces behind blank white sheets of paper.
“I want to show my support,” said a 24-year-old student from the mainland who identified herself as G for fear of reprisals. “I care about things I couldn’t identify with in the past.”
University security guards videotaped the event but there was no sign of police presence.
At an event in Central, a business district, about forty demonstrators carried white papers and flowers in what they said was mourning for the fire victims in Urumqi and others who died as a result of “non-coronavirus” policies.
Police cordoned off an area around the protesters, who stood in separate small groups to avoid violating pandemic rules banning gatherings of more than 12 people. Police took the participants’ identification details but there were no arrests.
Hong Kong has tightened security controls and rolled back Western-style civil liberties since China launched a crackdown in 2019 to crush a pro-democracy movement. The region has its own anti-virus strategy separate from the mainland.
On the mainland, the ruling party promised last month to reduce unrest By changing the isolation rules and other rules. But the sharp rise in the number of infections has occurred Cities pushed for tighter controls.
On Monday, the number of new daily cases rose to more than 40,000, including more than 36,000 asymptomatic cases.
The People’s Daily, affiliated with the ruling party, called for the effective implementation of its strategy to combat the virus, noting that Xi’s government had no plans to change course.
A commentator wrote in People’s Daily: “The facts have fully proven that every version of the prevention and control plan has withstood the test of practice.”
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 on social media.
Most of the protesters complained about the excessive restrictions, but some have turned their anger on Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s. In video verified by the Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Get down! CCP! Get down!”
The BBC said that one of its correspondents was beaten, kicked, handcuffed and detained for several hours by the Shanghai police, but was later released.
The BBC criticized what it said was the Chinese authorities’ interpretation of detaining its correspondent to prevent him from contracting the Corona virus from the audience. “We do not consider this interpretation to be credible,” the radio said in a statement.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the BBC reporter had failed to be identified and “did not voluntarily provide” his press credentials.
“Foreign journalists need to consciously follow Chinese laws and regulations,” Zhao said.
The Swiss RTS channel said that its reporter and cameraman were arrested while they were broadcasting live, but they were released after a few minutes. An Associated Press journalist was arrested but later released.
Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed.
“Beer buff. Devoted pop culture scholar. Coffee ninja. Evil zombie fan. Organizer.”