China uses intimidation and surveillance to try to quell protests

Reacting to the boldest and most widespread protests gives China in decades, the security apparatus built by the leader of the Communist Party🇧🇷 Xi Jinpingis mobilizing on multiple fronts to quell dissent, using a blend of traditional insurgence-fighting tactics with new, modern technologies implemented over the past decade.

At a meeting of the party’s top security leaders, reported on state media on Wednesday, authorities were ordered to “resolutely crack down on all illegal and criminal acts that disturb social order”. Public safety teams and vehicles covered potential protest sites. Law enforcement officers are combing through residents’ phones for banned apps. Authorities are going to the homes of potential protesters to warn them against illegal activity and are taking hundreds in for questioning. Censors are smearing protest symbols and slogans from social media.

The campaign is being carried out by a security apparatus that Xi Jinping has updated and modernized in pursuit of unshakable dominance. He expanded police forces, promoted loyal security leaders to key positions, and declared that “political security” – for him and the party – must be the bedrock of national security.

Video footage shows Shanghai residents confronting health workers dressed in protective clothing against COVID-19
Video footage shows Shanghai residents confronting health workers dressed in protective clothing against COVID-19 Photograph: Reuters

While unleashing his security apparatus on the demonstrators, Xi Jinping projects a serene appearance. He remains silent about the challenge to his rule that the protests pose, including calls for him to step down. Analysts say Xi’s gamble is to give the impression that he will ignore the demonstrations while using the security apparatus to undermine their momentum. “Chinese leaders are saying as little as possible for as long as possible,” said William Hurst, a professor at the University of Cambridge who studies politics and protests in China. “If they speak up, it could inflame the situation, so it’s better to sit back and pretend nothing is happening.”

On Tuesday, the People’s Dailythe party’s main newspaper, featured Xi’s talks with the chairman of MongoliaUkhnaa Khurelsukh, who visited China but did not write a single line about the protests, the most widespread in China since the pro-democracy movement that took over Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Since the 1989 protests, Chinese leaders have focused on the dangers of anti-government social movements, determined to nip them in the bud and avoid the trauma of another bloody crackdown. Still, the protests that erupted in parts of Shanghai, Beijing and other Chinese cities over the weekend appeared to catch leaders off guard.

Collective public anger began in Urumqi, a city in western China where at least 10 people died in an apartment fire last week. Many people have said, despite official denials, that the deaths were caused by pandemic restrictions that prevented residents from leaving their apartment buildings🇧🇷 Protests over the tragedy have turned into broader denunciations of China’s pandemic policies, as well as calls by some for democracy, a free press and other ideals anathema to the country’s authoritarian rulers.

This week, China’s security forces have regrouped, making new demonstrations much more difficult and risky. “I’m sure the security apparatus will get this under control quickly,” said H. Christoph Steinhardt, a professor at the University of Vienna who studies protest patterns in China. “They will start by identifying leaders and then leaning on them, combined with preventive policing in public areas.”

A group of protesters gather in Seoul in support of demonstrations held in China
A group of protesters gather in Seoul in support of demonstrations held in China Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP

In Hangzhou, a prosperous city about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, police broke up an attempted demonstration as soon as it started on Wednesday night, shouting at passers-by and dragging a screaming woman away. Dozens of people also confronted police officers who detained people.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, a video posted online on Wednesday showed about 100 police officers wearing hard hats and white protective clothing, possibly to avoid contamination by covid, banging their batons on their riot shields as they walked down the street, warning people to disperse. Workers in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district clashed with police on Tuesday.

Officials across China have been visiting protesters’ homes or stopping in the streets. They check their cell phones for apps banned in China, delete photos of demonstrations and warn people not to take to the streets again.

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“When the police knocked on my door, I had to delete my text records,” said a Beijing resident who attended a protest vigil near the Liangma River on Sunday night. She asked that only her last name, Chen, be used, citing fears of police reprisals.

Chen said it was driven by pain and frustration with the strict “covid zero” policies that had been enforced for nearly three years, including citywide lockdowns and constant covid testing. “I didn’t really have specific slogans and demands,” she said. “It was more about the pent-up pain of so many years locked away.”

Authorities appear to be trying to quietly address the most common complaints about China’s anti-Covid restrictions that have brought life, school and business to a halt.

A healthcare worker in a protective suit cleans the door of a hospital clinic in Beijing
A healthcare worker in a protective suit cleans the door of a hospital clinic in Beijing Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Since the protests over the weekend, China’s local governments have said they will ease restrictions and preventing residents from being locked in their homes longer than necessary to prevent outbreaks from expanding. On Tuesday, an article by Xinhua, the state’s main news agency, urged authorities to show compassion to frustrated residents. “All areas and departments should be more patient in alleviating the public’s anxieties,” the article reads. “The fight against the pandemic is complex, arduous and repetitive, and we must listen to the sincere voice of the people.”

Avoiding any direct mention of the protests by Chinese leaders or in state media is a deliberate strategy to try to downplay their significance. In 1989, students occupying Tianamen Square, Tiananmen Square, were furious after an editorial in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the party, condemned them as infiltrated by agents of riot. The unrest this time around did not reach that scale and the authorities seem to have learned their lesson.

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“The moment the central leadership takes an official position, they dignify the protests with an official response and admit that they should be considered, which gives them a status they would rather deny,” said Professor Hurst of the University of Cambridge.

In Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, police arrested some protesters. Some were released after a few days of detention. Special attention has been given to university students. At Tsinghua University, a prestigious school in Beijing, hundreds of students chanted for “democracy and the rule of law” and “free speech” in what was probably the boldest protest on campus.

An ethnic Uighur protester burns a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
An ethnic Uighur protester burns a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: Dilara Senkaya/Reuters

Tsinghua administrators said on Sunday that free buses would be available from this week to take students leaving early for winter break to train stations and airports, a move to defuse further protests.

By China’s standards, such a response is considered subdued. But that may not last, and it does not mean that Communist Party authorities treat all protesters leniently. Rather than speak out directly, the party allowed supporters on social media to portray the protesters as pawns, whether conscious or not, of Western efforts to destabilize China and discredit its “zero Covid” policies.

Since Monday, a growing chorus of these online commentators has linked the protests to the “color revolution,” a term borrowed from Russia to describe alleged Western-backed plots to sow insurrection in rival states. Some have claimed the protesters are acolytes of those who shook Hong Kong in 2019, prompting Xi to impose a national security law there and a sweeping crackdown on anti-government activists.

In previous years, intimidation by authorities and a strong police presence would likely have been enough to quell any fledgling protest movement. This time, some protesters vow to continue putting pressure on the Chinese government. In social media groups that operate beyond China’s censorship firewall, they exchanged ideas for moving around in smaller groups, using multiple phones and figuring out how to track and share information about police movements.

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But Xi’s security options are far from exhausted. China has about 2 million regular police officers — by some measures, relatively few for its 1.4 billion people — but also a million or more People’s Armed Police soldiers trained to quell riots, as well as legions of guards. security and auxiliary police. Ultimately, there is also the Chinese military. And as with the crackdown in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities may start arresting participants after the turmoil subsides.

Edward Luo, a 23-year-old who attended the protest in Shanghai on Sunday, said he was a student in Hong Kong during the 2019 protests and was concerned that young protesters in Shanghai did not understand the risks they faced.

“I think some people weren’t afraid and some students maybe didn’t understand how much pressure this state can put on them,” he said. “It’s like a newborn calf that isn’t afraid of a tiger.”

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