China has moved to contain dissent after the country saw historic protests against its zero-COVID policy over the weekend, using a mixed approach to quell widespread unrest that has at times challenged Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s authority.
On the one hand, health authorities announced on Tuesday plans to ease COVID rules and speed up inoculation for elderly—the country’s most vulnerable and under-vaccinated group—a critical step in the country’s search for an exit ramp from zero-COVID.
On the other hand, police are hunting down those who have participated in the protests and summoning them for interrogation.
In Beijing, some protesters on Monday reported receiving calls from police questioning their whereabouts and even visits to their homes. “He said my name and asked me whether I went to the Liangma river last night... he asked very specifically how many people were there, what time I went, how I heard about it,” a protester told AFP, referring to a site in the Chinese capital, where people gathered.
“The police stressed that last night’s protest was an illegal assembly, and if we had demands then we could submit them through the regular channels.”
Two protesters said they were asked to report to a police station on Tuesday with written accounts of their activities on Sunday. “We are all desperately deleting our chat history,” a witness of the protest in Beijing, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
Protests spread across China over the weekend after a deadly fire in Urumqi of Xinjiang—the latest tragedy connected to the country’s stringent pandemic measures—triggered an outpouring of anger. The demonstrations, which were largely peaceful, were the biggest display of defiance the country has seen under the iron grip of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and the most widespread since Tiananmen Square in 1989.
A Shanghai resident, who was detained in a police station for more than 24 hours, said she was shaken by the experience. She was among hundreds who gathered in Shanghai on Saturday night for a vigil for the victims in the Urumqi fire.
She was arrested in the early hours of Sunday, when the crowd grew thin. “I was planning to go home when they started randomly arresting people,” she told VICE World News, requesting anonymity to avoid government reprisal. “A girl beside me was taken away and I shouted to let her go, next moment I was held on the floor violently and they took me in a van along with three other people to a police station.”
At the station, police questioned her on whether she knew the organizers, how she learnt of the protest and why she went. She was also interrogated on what slogans or words the crowd was chanting.
The police later also visited her apartment again to make her delete social media posts about her arrest.
A Chinese human rights lawyer, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the situation, told VICE World News he has been receiving requests for legal advice from protesters who were being summoned.
“Many of them are students and do not have much experience. So they don’t know how to respond during a police questioning,” he said. “We would normally advise them not to answer questions that are speculative.”
According to an informal tally by a citizen group monitoring the situation, at least 50 people had been detained in Chengdu by Sunday, when hundreds gathered for a vigil.
By Monday, the demonstrations had mostly died down in China, with police out in force. But rallies continue to be held across the world in solidarity with the protesters. In Hong Kong, dozens of people gathered in universities and the city center to hold vigils—a rare occurrence in the city since a national security crackdown curtailed liberties and effectively criminalized dissent.
Similar events were organized in universities and outside Chinese embassies in the UK, Australia and the U.S.
Separately, more details have emerged about the victims of last week’s fatal blaze. Haiernishahan Abdureheman, a 48-year-old Uyghur woman, and four of her children aged between four and 13, were among at least 10 residents killed in the fire.
Speaking to CNN from Turkey, her two adult children blamed the government for not putting out the fire in time and allegedly blocking the fire escape—a measure also used in other cities to enforce lockdowns. The government has denied that COVID measures impeded evacuation or rescue efforts.
They themselves have not returned to China since 2017, when they fled an continuing campaign by Beijing to persecute Uyghur minority groups in Xinjiang, actions the United Nations said may amount to crimes against humanity. “We want to attend the funeral of our family members. But if we go back now, China will put us in jail or torture us,” the brother said.
Some local governments also began relaxing pandemic restrictions, including requirements on COVID tests. Beijing officials stressed on Monday that using solid objects to enclose areas or blocking fire escape routes and community entrances is “strictly forbidden.” Lockdowns at residential buildings would also be no more than 24 hours at a time.