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Protesters in the Chinese University of Hong Kong hold up blank white papers during a commemoration ceremony for victims of the Urumqi fire PA

China cities under heavy policing after protests as authorities accelerate push to vaccinate elderly

Several protests were planned for last night but did not materialise.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 29th 2022, 8:50 AM

CHINA’S MAJOR CITIES of Beijing and Shanghai are blanketed with security in the wake of nationwide rallies calling for political freedoms and an end to Covid-19 lockdowns.

The country’s leadership is facing a wave of protest not seen in decades, fuelled by anger over the unrelenting lockdowns as well as deep-rooted frustrations over China’s political direction.

A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, was the catalyst for public outrage, with protesters taking to the streets of cities around the country over the weekend.

The demonstrators said Covid restrictions were to blame for hampering rescue efforts – claims the government denied as it accused “forces with ulterior motives” of linking the fire to the strict virus measures.

‘So many police’
Several protests were planned for Monday night but did not materialise, with AFP journalists in Beijing and Shanghai noting a heavy police presence of hundreds of vehicles and officers on the streets.

embedded269989654 PA PA

People who had attended rallies over the weekend told AFP they had received phone calls from law enforcement demanding information about their movements.

In Shanghai, near a site where weekend protests saw bold calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping, bar staff told AFP they had been ordered to close at 10:00pm (2:00pm GMT) for “disease control”.

Small clusters of officers stood outside each metro exit.

Throughout the day, AFP journalists saw officers detaining four people, later releasing one, with a reporter counting 12 police cars within 100 metres along Wulumuqi street in Shanghai, the focal point of Sunday’s rally.

“The atmosphere tonight is nervy. There are so many police around,” a man in his early 30s told AFP as evening fell.

And with police cars, foot patrols, a network of surveillance cameras, and aided by the icy wind, Beijing authorities also appeared yesterday to have deterred fresh gatherings.

Elsewhere, some rallies did go ahead. In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where mass democracy protests erupted in 2019, dozens gathered at the Chinese University to mourn the victims of the Urumqi fire.

“Don’t look away. Don’t forget,” protesters shouted.

And in Hangzhou, just over 170 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, there was strict security and sporadic protests in the city’s downtown, footage circulating on social media and partly geolocated by AFP showed.

‘Many died in vain’
China’s strict control of information and continued travel curbs has made verifying the numbers of protesters across the vast country challenging.

But such widespread rallies are exceptionally rare, with authorities harshly clamping down on all opposition to the central government.

US President Joe Biden is monitoring the unrest, the White House said yesterday.

Around the world, solidarity protests have also mushroomed.

In the United States, Chinese-speaking and Uyghur communities came together in vigils.

“Officials are borrowing the pretext of Covid, but using excessively strict lockdowns to control China’s population,” one 21-year-old Chinese attendant who gave only his surname, Chen, told AFP.

“They disregarded human lives and caused many to die in vain,” he said.

‘No longer afraid’
China’s leaders have remained steadfast in their commitment to zero-Covid, which compels local authorities to impose snap lockdowns, quarantine orders, and limit freedom of movement in response to minor outbreaks.

But there are signs that some local authorities are taking steps to relax some of the rules and dampen the unrest.

In Urumqi, an official said the city would give a one-off payment of 300 yuan ($42) to each person with “low income or no income”, and announced a five-month rent exemption for some households.

People in the city of four million, some of whom have been confined to their homes for weeks on end, can also travel around on buses to run errands within their home districts starting today, officials said.

In Beijing, state media reported authorities had apologised for delayed deliveries to residents as online shopping demand surges due to repeated lockdowns.

embedded269989124 Protesters in Beijing PA PA

The city has also banned “the practice of barring building gates in closed-off residential compounds”, Xinhua said on Sunday.

The practice has fuelled public anger as people found themselves locked in their homes during minor outbreaks.

Meanwhile, China today announced that it would speed up a push to vaccinate people aged 60 and older against Covid-19 after the country posted record daily case numbers in recent days.

Beijing’s National Health Commission (NHC) pledged to “accelerate the increase in the vaccination rate for people over the age of 80, and continue to increase the vaccination rate for people aged 60-79″.

It also said it would “establish a special working group… to make special arrangements for the vaccination of the elderly against Covid”.

“It is necessary to conduct popular science education on the meaning and benefits of vaccination, and fully publicize vaccines’ efficacy on preventing severe illness and death,” it added.

China’s low vaccination rates, particularly among the older population, have long been seen as prolonging Beijing’s no-tolerance approach to Covid.

Just 65.8 percent of people over 80 are fully vaccinated, NHC officials told a press conference Tuesday.

And China has not yet approved mRNA vaccines, proven to be more effective, for public use.

Many fear that lifting that policy while swathes of the population remain not fully immunised could overwhelm China’s healthcare system and cause over a million deaths.

China logged 38,421 domestic infections Tuesday, slightly down from record highs seen over the weekend and comparably low when compared to caseloads seen in western countries during the height of the pandemic.

© AFP 2022

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