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China is still punishing those who protest zero coronavirus

When protest In November, as the government’s “zero coronavirus” policy spread across China, some observers feared a violent crackdown was coming. After all, the Communist Party has such a history. But the authorities’ initial reaction was cautious. Police watched silently as throngs of young people in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities called for an end to mass testing and lockdowns. Even as some protesters called for free speech and voting rights, officials did not interrupt. The head of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau told a protester that the crowd had been heard.

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Soon after the demonstrations, the Chinese government abandoned most of its coronavirus containment measures. A recent article by Xinhua, the official news agency, made no mention of the protests, but noted that public “fatigue, anxiety and tension” had been rising, helping to change policymakers’ thinking. The party likes to claim it responds to public sentiment.

But it dislikes politically charged protests. So even though the government is dismantling its virus-free machines, it’s going after those who push it to do so. In the days and weeks after the protests ended, police used facial recognition technology and cellphone data to track down many of those involved. Some were brought in for questioning and forced to sign a document acknowledging their mistakes. Others were reportedly strip-searched.

Most were released within a day. But at least eight people who took part in the protests in Beijing have been detained since mid-December, according to their friends. Most of them are women in their 20s with white-collar jobs. Several others were also detained, the report said. In a post on the social media platform Weibo, a lawyer for one of the detainees claimed that the police made it difficult for him to see his client.

Detainees may be released after 37 days in custody, the maximum time allowed before formal arrest. Protesters in the city of Guangzhou were released this month after weeks in jail. But it is also possible that those still held will be charged and detained under vague public order laws.

Paranoia may overshadow the government’s treatment of protesters. Officials and pro-government commentators have claimed that foreign powers are behind the unrest. The US and other Western countries are the usual suspects. Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, likened the anti-coronavirus protests to the “color” revolutions that swept through the former Soviet Union. China also blames these on Western machinations. “White is also a color,” said Mr. Lu, referring to the blank paper held up by Chinese protesters as a way to emphasize official restrictions on speech.

Public outrage does not seem to need to be fanned from abroad. Government covid controls are trapping more and more people and hurting the economy. Disappointment with zero covid is growing. The protests are just the latest sign of that. People have removed barriers and clashed with police. As the Omicron variant spreads, it is becoming increasingly clear that zero covid is not sustainable. In the end, the government bowed to reality. It doesn’t want to be seen as bowing to the demands of the protesters so as not to encourage more.

Subscribers can sign up to our new weekly newsletter, The Drum Tower, to learn how the world shapes China — and how China shapes the world. All of our stories related to the pandemic can be found in our Coronavirus Hub.

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