China’s vast security apparatus moved quickly to quell the mass protests that have swept the country, with police patrolling the streets, checking cellphones and even calling some protesters to warn them of a repeat.
In major cities on Monday and Tuesday, police flooded the sites of protests that took place over the weekend, when thousands of people gathered to express their anger at the country’s tough zero-Covid policy – some calling for more democracy and freedom in an extraordinary display of dissent. against Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Since then, the heavy police presence has discouraged protesters from gathering, while authorities in some cities have adopted surveillance tactics used in far western Xinjiang to intimidate those who demonstrated over the weekend.
In what appears to be the first official – albeit veiled – response to the protests, China’s internal security chief vowed at a meeting on Tuesday to “effectively maintain overall social stability”.
Without mentioning the protests, Chen Wenqing urged law enforcement officials to “resolutely strike hard against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces, as well as illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order.” “, reported the official Xinhua news agency.
Harsh language can signal a brutal crackdown to come. Although protests over local grievances are occurring in China, the current wave of protests is the most widespread since the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The political challenge is also unprecedented, with some protesters openly calling for Xi, the strongest and most powerful in the country. authoritarian leader for decades, to resign.
Some of the boldest protests have taken place in Shanghai, where crowds have called for Xi to step down for two nights in a row. The sidewalks of Urumqi Road – the main protest site – have been completely blocked off by high barricades, making it virtually impossible for crowds to gather.
Ten minutes away, dozens of police patrolled People’s Square – a large square in the heart of the city where some residents had planned to gather with white paper and candles on Monday evening. Police also waited inside a subway station there, closing all but one exit, according to a protester at the scene.
CNN is not naming any of the protesters in this story to protect them from retaliation.
The protester said he saw police checking passers-by’ cellphones and asking if they had installed virtual private networks (VPNs) that could be used to bypass China’s internet firewall, or apps such as Twitter and Telegram, although banned in the country. were used by protesters.
“There were also police dogs. The whole atmosphere was chilling,” the protester said.
The protesters then decided to move their planned protest to another location, but by the time they arrived the security presence had already been stepped up there, the protester said.
“There were too many police and we had to cancel,” he said.
On Tuesday, a widely circulated statement video appears to show police checking passengers’ mobile phones on a Shanghai subway train.
Another Shanghai protester told CNN he was among “about 80 to 110” people arrested by police on Saturday night, adding that they were released 24 hours later.
CNN cannot independently verify the number of detained protesters and it is unknown how many people, if any, remain in custody.
The protester said the detainees saw their phones confiscated on board a bus which took them to a police station, where officers took their fingerprints and retina scans.
According to the protester, the police told the detainees that they had been used by “malicious people who want to start a color revolution”, pointing to nationwide protests that broke out the same day as evidence of this.
The protester said police returned his phone and camera upon their release, but officers deleted the photo album and took down the social media app WeChat.
In Beijing, police vehicles, many parked with their headlights flashing, lined eerily quiet streets on Monday morning in parts of the capital, including near Liangmaqiao in the central Chaoyang district, where large crowds of protesters swarmed. was gathered on Sunday evening.
The protest, which saw hundreds of people marching on the city’s Third Ring Road, ended peacefully in the early hours of Monday under close surveillance by lines of police.
But some protesters have since received phone calls from police asking about their participation.
A protester said she received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a local policeman, asking if she was at the protest and what she saw there. She was also told that if she was unhappy with the authorities, she should complain to the police, instead of taking part in “illegal activities” such as the protest.
“That night the police mostly took a calm approach when dealing with us. But the Communist Party is very good at inflicting punishment afterwards,” the protester told CNN.
She said she did not wear a face mask during the protest. “I don’t think Omicron is that scary,” she said. But her friends who wore masks at the protest also received calls from the police – some as late as 1 a.m., she added.
Yet the protester remained defiant. “It’s our legitimate right (to protest) because the constitution says we have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly,” she said.
Another protester, who has not heard from police, told CNN that fear that she could be called next weighs heavily on her mind.
“I can only take comfort in knowing that there were so many of us who participated in the demonstration, that they cannot put a thousand people in prison,” she said.
Meanwhile, some universities in Beijing have arranged transport for students to return home early for winter break and take classes online, citing an effort to reduce Covid risks for students taking public transport .
But the arrangement also discourages students from gathering, following protests on a series of campuses over the weekend, including the prestigious Tsinghua University where hundreds of students shouted “Democracy and rule of law!” Freedom of expression!”
Given the long history of student movements in modern China, authorities are particularly concerned about political rallies on college campuses.
Peking universities were behind protests that kicked off the May Fourth Movement in 1919, from which the Communist Party of China has its roots, as well as the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which were brutally repressed by the Chinese army.
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