The Communist Party’s top security body has called for a “crackdown” against “hostile forces” after China saw protests in major cities against COVID-19 lockdowns and in support of greater political freedoms.

The Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, which oversees all domestic law enforcement in China, said on Tuesday it was “necessary to crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law,” according to a reading from a meeting published by the state news agency Xinhua.

It also said it was crucial to “resolutely crack down on illegal criminal acts that disrupt social order in accordance with the law and seriously ensure overall social stability”.

China experienced one weekend of protests not seen in decades as anger over unrelenting lockdowns fed deep-seated frustration with the political system.

A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, was the catalyst for the outcry. Protesters blamed COVID lockdowns for disrupting rescue efforts. Protesters took to the streets in cities across China to pay tribute to the 10 dead and to call for an end to harsh COVID controls.

Some protesters have also used the demonstrations to call for greater freedom of expression and the resignation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping – bold demands in a country where all organized political opposition is systematically crushed.

Chinese universities sent their students home on Tuesday and police fanned out in Beijing and Shanghai prevent more protests.

Authorities eased some COVID-19 controls after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong, but insisted they would stick to a “zero COVID” strategy, which has kept millions home for months locked up. Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and tightened surveillance.

Because of the police presence, there were no protests on Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities, which saw the weekend’s most widespread protests since the military overthrew the student-led pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 precipitated. .

In Hong Kong, about a dozen people, mostly from the mainland, protested outside a university.

Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students protested over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and southern Guangdong province sent students home. The universities said they were protecting students from COVID-19, but spreading them to their faraway places also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism, including during the Tiananmen protests.

Authorities hope to “defuse the situation” by evacuating campuses, said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.

Depending on how tough the government takes, groups may take turns protesting, he said.

Protesters got in touch

Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid drawing attention to the scale of the protests or encouraging others. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were removed by the ruling party’s massive online censorship apparatus.

There were no announcements of detentions, although reporters saw protesters being taken away by police and authorities warned some detained protesters not to demonstrate again.

Two protesters told Reuters news agency that callers identifying as Beijing police officers had asked them to report to a police station on Tuesday with written accounts of their activities on Sunday night. One student also said they were asked by their university if they had been in an area where a protest was taking place and to provide a written account.

“We are all desperately clearing our chat history,” said another person who witnessed the protest in Beijing and declined to be identified. The person said the police asked how they heard of the protest and their motive for going.

It was not clear how authorities identified the people they wanted to question about their participation in the protests, nor was it clear how many such people the authorities want to question.

Rethinking lockdowns?

Sympathy protests have been held abroad and foreign governments have called on Beijing to exercise restraint.

“We support the right of people everywhere to protest peacefully, to express their views, their concerns and their frustrations,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Bucharest, Romania.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric called on China to allow peaceful protests, and tThe head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Tuesday that it is time for China to move away from massive lockdowns and to a more focused approach to COVID-19.

IMF director Kristalina Georgieva told The Associated Press that a change would soften the impact on a global economy already beset by high inflation, an energy crisis and food disruptions.

She urged a “recalibration” of China’s tough “zero-COVID” approach “precisely because of the impact it is having on both people and the economy.”

“We see how important it is to move away from mass lockdowns, to be very focused in restrictions, so that targeting allows containment of the spread of COVID without appreciable economic costs,” Georgieva said in Berlin on Tuesday.

She also urged China to look at vaccination policies and focus on vaccinating the “most vulnerable people”.

Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 demonstrations who now lives in exile, said the protests “symbolize the beginning of a new era in China … in which Chinese civil society has decided not to remain silent and to confront tyranny” .

But he warned at a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, that authorities would likely respond with “more force to violently repress protesters.”

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