US and Canada urge China not to harm zero-Covid protesters amid new clashes with police

The US and Canada have urged China not to harm or intimidate protesters opposing Covid-19 lockdowns as police clashed with demonstrators and the country’s top security body called for a crackdown on “hostile forces”.

Protesters scuffled with police in the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou late on Tuesday night, according to witnesses and footage.

Security personnel in hazmat suits formed ranks shoulder-to-shoulder, taking cover under riot shields, to make their way down a street in the southern city’s Haizhu district as glass smashed around them, videos posted on social media showed.

In the footage – geolocated by Agence France-Prese – people could be heard screaming and shouting, as orange and blue barricades were pictured strewn across the ground.

Others were seen throwing objects at the police, and later nearly a dozen men were filmed being taken away with their hands bound by cable ties.

A Guangzhou resident surnamed Chen told AFP on Wednesday that he witnessed around 100 police officers converge on Houjiao village in Haizhu district and arrest at least three men on Tuesday night.

Haizhu, a district with more than 1.8 million people, has been the source of the bulk of Guangzhou’s Covid-19 cases. Much of the area has been under lockdown since late October.

On Tuesday, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the US stood up for peaceful protesters.

“We don’t want to see protesters physically harmed, intimidated or coerced in any way. That’s what peaceful protest is all about and that’s what we have continued to stand up for whether it’s in China or Iran or elsewhere around the world …,” he told CNN.

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said on Tuesday that everyone in China should be allowed to protest and enjoy freedom of expression, and that Canadians were closely watching the protests against the country’s zero-Covid policy.

“Everyone in China should be allowed to express themselves, should be allowed to share their perspectives and indeed protest,” Trudeau said. “We’re going to continue to ensure that China knows we’ll stand up for human rights, we’ll stand with people who are expressing themselves.”

Discontent with China’s stringent Covid prevention strategy three years into the pandemic has ignited into protests in cities across the country, in the biggest wave of civil disobedience since leader Xi Jinping took power a decade ago.

Chinese authorities have been seeking out some who gathered at weekend protests, people who were at the Beijing demonstrations told Reuters. The number of people who have been detained at the demonstrations and in follow-up police actions is not known.

China’s foreign ministry says rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law.

Police were out in force in Beijing and Shanghai on Tuesday to prevent more protests that have disrupted the lives of millions, damaged the economy and briefly sparked rare calls for Xi to step down.

Hugh Yu, who said he participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and now lives in Canada, called on Canadians and the Canadian government to speak out against China’s actions.

“A lot of people don’t want to die in silence,” he said of protesters in China. “I don’t want to stand here and speak to you guys,” he said to a Reuters reporter. “But I have no choice.”

On Tuesday China sent university students home and flooded streets with police in an attempt to disperse the most widespread anti-government protests in decades, as the country’s top security body called for a crackdown on “hostile forces”.

In an apparent effort to tackle anger at the zero-Covid policies that originally sparked the protests, authorities also announced plans to step up vaccination of older people.

Such a move is a vital precursor to loosening controls without mass deaths or overwhelming the health system in a country where there is almost no natural immunity to Covid, after nearly three years of trying to eliminate the virus.

In a sign of official concern, the Communist party’s central political and legal affairs commission, which oversees all domestic law enforcement in China, met on Tuesday. Its members blamed “infiltration and sabotage” by “hostile forces” and called for a crackdown, according to a readout of a meeting in the state news agency Xinhua.

Chinese authorities often blame discontent on “foreign forces”, although the claim is likely to be shrugged off by many people in China frustrated by the fierce restrictions deployed to try to keep Covid out of the country.

One weekend protest video showed a sarcastic crowd asking whether accusations about “foreign forces” referred to Marx and Engels, the fathers of communism, whose works still feature on the Chinese syllabus.

The protests appear to have blindsided authorities. The foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, a champion of hyper-aggressive “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, was rendered briefly speechless on Tuesday by a question about whether the government would consider changing course on Covid after the demonstrations.

China’s zero-Covid policy has helped keep case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries, but global health experts including the head of the World Health Organization increasingly say it is unsustainable. China dismissed the remarks as irresponsible.

Beijing needs to make its approach “very targeted” to reduce economic disruption, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) told the Associated Press in an interview on Tuesday. “We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns,” said IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva in Berlin. “So that targeting allows to contain the spread of Covid without significant economic costs.”

Economists and health experts, however, warn that Beijing can’t relax controls that keep most travellers out of China until tens of millions of older people are vaccinated. They say that means zero-Covid controls might not end for as much as another year.

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