HONG KONG — Students in Hong Kong chanted “against dictatorship” on Monday in a protest against China’s COVID-19 rules after mainland protesters made an unprecedented call for President Xi Jinping to resign in the largest demonstration of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades.
Protests against China’s unusually strict anti-virus measures spread to several cities this weekend, and authorities relaxed some rules, apparently to quell that public anger. But the government showed no signs of backing down on its larger coronavirus strategy, and analysts expect authorities to quickly silence dissent.
With police present on Monday, there were no protests in Beijing or Shanghai. But about 50 students sang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a few lit candles to show support for those in mainland cities demonstrating against the restrictions that have bound millions to their homes. The students hid their faces to avoid official retaliation and chanted, “No PCR tests, but freedom!” and “Be against the dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”
The rally and a similar one elsewhere in Hong Kong were the largest protests there in more than a year under rules imposed to prevent a pro-democracy movement in the area, which is Chinese but has a legal system different from the mainland, the pressing head.
“I’ve wanted to speak out for a long time, but I didn’t get the chance,” said James Cai, a 29-year-old from Shanghai, who attended a protest in Hong Kong and held up a piece of white paper. a symbol of resistance to the ubiquitous censorship of the ruling party. “If the people on the mainland can’t take it anymore, then I can’t either.”
It was not clear how many people have been detained since protests began on Friday, sparked by anger over the death of 10 people in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Some have questioned whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls.
Without mentioning the protests, criticism of Xi or the fire, some local authorities eased restrictions on Monday.
Beijing’s city government has announced it will no longer erect gates to block access to apartment complexes where contagions are found.
“Passageways must be kept clear for medical transport, emergency flights and rescue efforts,” said Wang Daguang, a city official in charge of epidemic control, according to the official China News Service.
Guangzhou, a manufacturing and trade center that is the biggest hot spot in China’s latest wave of infections, has announced that some residents will no longer have to undergo mass testing.
Urumqi, where the fire occurred, and another city in the northwest Xinjiang region announced that markets and other businesses in low-infection-risk areas would reopen this week and public bus service would resume.
“Zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped China’s case rate to be lower than that of the United States and other major countries. But tolerance for the measures has waned as people in some areas have been confined to their homes for up to four months and say they have no reliable access to food and medical supplies.
In Hong Kong, Chinese University protesters put up posters reading, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t forget. Don’t forgive,” and chanted, among other things, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical “Les Miserables.” Most hid their faces behind blank white sheets of paper.
“I want to show my support,” said a 24-year-old mainland student who would only identify herself as G for fear of retaliation. “I care about things that I couldn’t get to know in the past.”
University security guards videotaped the event, but there was no sign of police.
At an event in Central, a business district, about four dozen protesters held up blank sheets of paper and flowers in what they say mourned the victims of the Urumqi fire and others who died as a result of the “zero COVID” policy.
Police cordoned off an area around protesters standing in small, segregated groups to avoid breaking pandemic rules that prohibit gatherings of more than 12 people. The police took identity information from the participants, but there were no arrests.
Hong Kong has tightened security controls and rolled back Western-style civil liberties since China launched a campaign in 2019 to crack down on a pro-democracy movement. The territory has its own antivirus strategy that is separate from the mainland.
On the mainland, the ruling party promised last month to reduce the nuisance by changing quarantine and other rules. But a spike in infections has prompted cities to tighten controls.
On Monday, the number of new daily cases rose to more than 40,000, including more than 36,000 without symptoms.
The ruling party newspaper People’s Daily called for effective implementation of its anti-virus strategy, indicating that Xi’s government has no intention of changing course.
“The facts have fully proved that every version of the prevention and control plan has passed the test of practice,” wrote a commentator for People’s Daily.
According to witnesses and video on social media, protests have also taken place in Guangzhou near Hong Kong, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest, and Nanjing in the east.
Most protesters have complained about excessive restrictions, but some have turned their anger on Xi, at least China’s most powerful leader since the 1980s. In a video verified by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Stand down! CCP! Stand down!”
The British Broadcasting Corp. said one of his reporters was beaten, kicked, handcuffed and detained for several hours by Shanghai police, but later released.
The BBC criticized what it said was Chinese authorities’ statement that the reporter had been detained to avoid contracting coronavirus from the mob. “We do not find this statement credible,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the BBC reporter did not identify himself and “did not voluntarily display his press credentials”.
“Foreign journalists should consciously follow Chinese laws and regulations,” Zhao said.
Swiss broadcaster RTS said its correspondent and a cameraman were detained during a live broadcast but released a few minutes later. An AP journalist was arrested but later released.
Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed.
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