(Added by Health Officer, Ministry of External Affairs, Vaccination Efforts)
Written by Martin Quinn Pollard and Eduardo Baptista
BEIJING, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Chinese authorities have launched an investigation into some people who gathered at weekend protests against Covid-19 restrictions, three people at the Beijing protests told Reuters, as police were not outnumbered on the city’s streets.
In one case, a caller identified as a police officer in the Chinese capital asked protesters to appear at a police station on Tuesday to provide a written record of their activities on Sunday night.
In another, a student was contacted by their college and asked if they were in the area where the incident occurred and to provide a written account.
“We are all desperately deleting our chat history,” one Beijing protester, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.
“There are a lot of police. The police came to check my friend’s ID and then took him away. We don’t know why. After a few hours they let him go.”
Beijing’s Public Security Bureau did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law.
Dissatisfaction with strict COVID prevention policies three years into the pandemic ignited into larger protests over the weekend in cities thousands of miles away.
The biggest wave of civil disobedience in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago came as the number of Covid cases reached daily highs and large parts of several cities faced new lockdowns.
A health official said the complaints about the Covid controls are mainly about their rigid implementation.
“The issues highlighted by the public are not aimed at epidemic prevention and control, but rather focus on simplifying prevention and control measures,” Cheng Yuquan told reporters.
COVID has spread despite China largely isolating itself from the world and demanding significant sacrifices from its population to comply with frequent testing and prolonged isolation.
The lockdowns have fueled one of the sharpest slowdowns in China’s growth in decades, disrupting global supply chains and roiling financial markets.
On Tuesday, shares in China and elsewhere rallied on expectations that the country could be on track to ease restrictions, after authorities announced plans to increase vaccination rates among the elderly.
In Hangzhou, the capital of eastern Zhejiang province, videos on social media that Reuters could not independently verify showed hundreds of police occupying a large square on Monday night, preventing people from gathering.
A video showed police, surrounded by a small crowd of people holding smartphones, making arrests and others trying to get the detainee back.
Hangzhou police had no immediate comment.
In Shanghai and Beijing, police were patrolling areas where some groups on the Telegram messaging service advised people to gather again. Police presence on Monday night confirmed that no rally took place.
“It’s really scary,” Beijing resident Philip Qin, 22, told the large number of police officers on the street.
Residents said police are asking people passing through the areas to check if they have Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Telegram apps for their phones, which the protesters used, residents said. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from the Chinese internet.
Police hijacked a bus of protesters during protests in Shanghai on Sunday night.
The catalyst for the protests was last week’s fire in the western city of Urumqi in which authorities said 10 people were killed.
Some netizens said that the Covid lockdown measures have hampered efforts to rescue people from the burning building. Officials denied it.
Students from several colleges in Sichuan province who took part in campus memorials for the victims have been asked by their teachers who the main organizer is, said one person who took part in the provincial capital, Chengdu.
Prominent nationalist bloggers, such as Ren Yi, grandson of Communist Party leader Ren Zhong, and Yu Li, who uses the pen name Sima Nan, wrote this week that the protests were instigated by “foreign forces.”
“What is their purpose? On the one hand, it is to intensify internal conflicts. On the other hand, it is to see if they can completely politicize the issues surrounding our epidemic prevention and health policies,” Wren wrote on his “Chairman Rabbit” blog. wrote .
Chinese authorities regularly warn that “foreign forces” threaten national security and accuse them of inciting the 2019 pro-democracy Hong Kong protests.
“Blaming foreign powers is a standard strategy,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. This is how the party shirks responsibility and rallies the people behind it.
Officials say China’s Covid policies have kept the death toll in the thousands, avoiding millions elsewhere. Many analysts say easing the policy before increasing vaccination rates could lead to massive morbidity and mortality, overwhelming hospitals.
In an editorial on Tuesday that did not mention the protests, the party’s official newspaper People’s Daily called on citizens to “reluctantly” implement the COVID policies.
“The harder it is, the more you have to grind your teeth,” it says.
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Martin Quinn Pollard, Yeu Lun Tian and Albie Zhang in Beijing and Casey Hall in Shanghai; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel)