China affirms zero-Covid stance as protests continue to grip nation

Anger has been growing about rigidly enforced lockdowns against Covid, in some of China's biggest cities. ITV News Correspondent Ian Woods reports

Authorities in China eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas but affirmed the nation's severe “zero-Covid” strategy after rare protests demanded President Xi Jinping resign.

The government made no comment on the protests or criticism of President Xi, the most widespread display of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades.

There was no official word on how many people were detained after police used pepper spray against protesters in Shanghai and struggled to suppress demonstrations in other cities including Beijing, the capital.

The city government of Beijing announced it would no longer set up gates to block access to apartment compounds where infections are found. It made no mention of a deadly fire last week that set off the protests, following angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls.

Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” said a city official in charge of epidemic control, Wang Daguang, according to the official China News Service.

“Zero Covid,” which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped to keep China’s case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries. But people in some areas have been confined at home for up to four months and say they lack reliable food supplies.

The ruling party promised last month to reduce the disruption of “zero Covid” by changing quarantine and other rules. But public acceptance is wearing thin after a spike in infections prompted cities to tighten controls, fueling complaints overzealous enforcement is hurting the public.

On Monday, the number of new daily cases rose to 40,347, including 36,525 with no symptoms. The ruling party newspaper People’s Daily called for its anti-virus strategy to be carried out effectively, indicating Xi’s government has no plans to change course. “Facts have fully proved that each version of the prevention and control plan has withstood the test of practice,” a People’s Daily commentator wrote.

Protesters had gathered in China in November. Credit: AP

Also on Monday, the southern manufacturing and trade metropolis of Guangzhou, the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, announced some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing. It cited a need to conserve resources. Protests spread to at least eight major cities after at least 10 people died Thursday in the fire in an apartment building in Urumqi. Most protesters complained about excessive restrictions, but some shouted slogans against Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s. A crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!”

Police using pepper spray broke up that demonstration, but people returned to the same spot on Sunday for another protest. A reporter saw an unknown number being driven away in a police bus after being detained.

The BBC said one of its journalists, who was covering the protest in Shanghai, was "beaten and kicked by police". He was also arrested, before eventually being released, the broadcaster said.

According to Chinese officials, Mr Lawrence was arrested "for his own good" in case he caught Covid from the crowd, but the BBC said it did "not consider this a credible explanation".

Protests against the government are extremely rare in China, with social media heavily monitored and members of the public facing harsh reprisals for speaking out against the communist party.

To directly demand the resignation of the country's leader is even rarer and the protests represent the largest widespread show of opposition to the ruling party in decades.

'I don't want a Covid test, I want freedom'

Reporting from the city, ITV News Journalist Megumi Lim said: "Hundreds of people are out on the streets to protest the 'zero Covid' measures that they're so tired of.

"People are shouting slogans: I don't want a Covid test, I want freedom.

"What began as a vigil commemorating and mourning the 10 people who died in the fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang because the fire department couldn't get to the blaze because of lockdown that was enforced there.

"People are very angry and I think things have reached a boiling point here in Beijing."

“The lockdown policy is so strict,” said a protestor in Beijing, who would give only his surname, Li. “You cannot compare it to any other country. We have to find a way out.”

About 2,000 students at Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University in Beijing, gathered to demand an easing of anti-virus controls, according to social media posts. Students shouted “freedom of speech!” and sang the Internationale, the socialist anthem.

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