AUTHORITIES ARE CRACKING down on those involved in the weekend’s protests against China’s zero-Covid policy. By the standards of these things, they are taking a relatively light-handed, although still firm, approach.
Heavy police presence and the closure of streets where demonstrators had planned to gather averted a third day of protests in Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and other cities around the country. Authorities have questioned known protestors, tracking some down to their homes, but reports suggest those detained are being released the same day. Nonetheless, the warnings will have been sent. The censorship of social media has gone into overdrive.
The elimination of independent media and non-governmental organisations, critical conduits for turning popular discontent into organised political action in autocratic and semi-autocratic states, always made it unlikely that the weekend’s protests would develop into something more threatening to the leadership in Beijing.
The scale of the numbers taking to the streets will likely have caused surprise and concern, and the widespread student involvement may have been more alarming, given the historical role of student protest in Chinese politics. Nonetheless, neither would have been seen as being beyond the capabilities of a well-honed security apparatus to suppress.
State media are now spinning a narrative that the worst abuses of the zero-Covid regime are the responsibility of over-zealous local officials, not the central government, the target of some protestors’ ire over the weekend. Exemplary punishments for some hapless local officials can be expected.
Public health officials are reiterating that the zero-Covid policy will continue, but in mollifying terms. The frustration and anger at zero-Covid cuts across all socio-economic classes, so it is difficult to fall back on the playbook of vilifying one group as troublemakers as politically motivated or portraying the protests as the work of hostile foreign interests.
That has not stopped the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission wheeling out the well-practiced line that it was ‘necessary to crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law’.
More notably to this Bystander, officials are stressing the need to step up vaccination of the elderly, the most vulnerable group to the latest outbreaks of infection. Only once vaccination rates are improved can an exit strategy from zero-Covid be contemplated.