Police have been out in force in China to stamp out zero-Covid protests and health authorities have launched a vaccination drive for older people, days after a show of civil disobedience unprecedented since president Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.
At least one person was arrested, according to social media videos, and there were also reports some demonstrators had been interrogated by authorities over the phone after attending the rare street gatherings in cities across the country.
The arrest was reportedly made in the city of Hangzhou late on Monday. Videos on social media, which could not be independently verified, showed hundreds of police occupying a large public square on Monday night, preventing people from congregating.
One video showed police, surrounded by a small crowd of people holding smartphones, making an arrest while others tried to pull back the person being detained. Hangzhou police did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
In Shanghai and Beijing, police could be seen on Tuesday morning still patrolling areas of the cities where some groups on the Telegram social media app had suggested people should gather again. Their presence on Monday evening and throughout the night ensured no more gatherings took place.
There were reports of police asking people for their phones to check if they had virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Telegram app, which has been used by weekend protesters. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from China’s internet.
People were also sharing instructions on Telegram about how to keep phone data safe from random police checks, including apps or settings to quickly clear data. “What to do if your phone is stolen or taken by the police – this little guide may prevent unpleasant situations down the road,” one message read.
In Shanghai, near a site of weekend protests, bar staff told the AFP news agency they had been ordered to close at 10pm local time 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. “The atmosphere tonight is nervy. There are so many police around,” a man in his early 30s said as evening fell.
A press conference by the national health commission on Tuesday afternoon suggested the government was perhaps taking note of the unrest. In response to questions, one official acknowledged “the problems reported by the people recently”. The official went on to say those problems were not strictly about “the prevention and control of the epidemic itself”, but on issues with implementation at the local level, too-short breaks between lockdowns, and confusion about various rules.
The regular press conference also detailed a new vaccination drive for China’s elderly population. Officials revealed just 76.6% of people over 80 had received two doses, compared to more than 90% of the general population, and only 65.8% had received a full course of three. The new work plan for “strengthening coronavirus vaccination of the elderly” ordered local authorities to improve vaccine promotion and delivery to the older age groups, who have been far more averse to vaccination than younger generations. However, it also said some individuals would start having to explain why they were refusing.
Low vaccination rates among elderly people are one of the major hurdles to China easing the zero-Covid measures at the heart of the protests.
In Beijing, hundreds of mostly young people braved icy temperatures to gather near a riverbank in the capital on Sunday evening, as a vigil for victims of a deadly apartment fire in north-western China’s Xinjiang region turned into calls to end zero-Covid.
A female protester told AFP that by Monday evening she and five of her friends who attended the protest had received phone calls from Beijing police, demanding information about their movements.
In one case, a police officer visited her friend’s home after they refused to answer their phone. “He said my name and asked me whether I went to the Liangma river last night … he asked very specifically how many people were there, what time I went, how I heard about it,” she told AFP, asking to remain anonymous. “The police stressed that last night’s protest was an illegal assembly, and if we had demands then we could submit them through the regular channels.”
It is not clear how police discovered the identities of some protesters and the vast majority of those at Sunday’s rally did not have their ID documents checked by police, an AFP journalist reported.
Tuesday’s newspapers carried several items on zero-Covid, including an editorial in Xinhua acknowledging that the pandemic “has had some impact on social production and life”.
“In the face of complex changes in the pandemic, all localities and departments must be more patient and relieve the emotions of the people,” it said.
On Monday, smaller demonstrations spilled over outside mainland China. Dozens of protesters gathered in Hong Kong’s central business district, the scene of sometimes-violent anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Expatriate dissidents and students staged small-scale vigils and protests in cities around the world including London, Paris, Tokyo and Sydney.
The US president, Joe Biden, is closely monitoring unrest in China by protesters, the White House said on Monday. National security council spokesman John Kirby would not describe Biden’s reaction to the protesters’ demands but said the president supported their rights. “People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that that they take issue with,” Kirby said.
Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said China posed a “systemic challenge” to UK values and interests, as his government condemned the reported beating of the BBC reporter.
Since Friday, a wave of protests spread across cities in China, prompted by the death of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi in Xinjiang. Much of the region had been under lockdown for more than three months, and people blamed the lockdown for the deaths.
The protests have demonstrated a growing frustration and scepticism with the ruling Communist party’s commitment to zero-Covid. Xi’s government has pursued a policy of lockdowns, repeated testing of millions of people and lengthy quarantines for overseas arrivals in an attempt to limit spread.
A series of incidents related to the enforcement of the policy, including a bus crash that killed 27 people being taken to quarantine, and numerous suicides and other deaths linked to lockdowns and restrictions, have tested people’s tolerance.
Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report