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China woke up to a wave of protests that shook the country’s main cities over the weekend against the “zero covid” policy and in which an unspecified number of people and at least two Western media correspondents were arrested.
The outrage over the death of 10 people in an apparently confined building in the city of Urumqi (northwest) turned yesterday into unprecedented vigils and protests in many parts of the country, such as Beijing or the megalopolis of Shanghai.
Some recordings showed how hundreds of people marched through the streets of different cities while showing blank sheets of paper representing their opposition to censorship.
The demonstrators sang “Those of you who refuse to be slaves, rise up” – a verse of the Chinese national anthem – or “The Internationale”, shouting “we want freedom”, “we don’t want PCR tests” or “f*ck the QR codes”, in reference to the obligation to scan with a mobile application the sanitary QR codes at the entrance of any establishment or even in parks so that, when the authorities detect a contagion, they can determine who has had contact with that person at any given moment.
“It was reasonable, inspiring and went calmly,” a woman who went to the Liangma River last night, where the capital protest took place, told Efe today.
In some of the cities, groups of people went so far as to chant “Down with the Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping (the Chinese president),” an unusual public display of disapproval of the policies of the country’s leader.
“Whatever we think of the government, we are not asking for chaos or an absence of order. We want internal reform, but it doesn’t seem possible. We are desperate,” said another person from Beijing who, like many people now in China, remains in anticipation of whether the protests will continue or whether their voices will be heard.
Arrests of journalists
Sunday’s protests in Shanghai were similarly largely peaceful, according to accounts on networks, with some saying there were a few arrests.
Among them, that of a BBC journalist, arrested after being “beaten and kicked” by Chinese police officers while he was filming, the British media reported today.
The Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club issued a statement today expressing its “great concern” over Lawrence’s “forcible detention”: “We hope that the police and authorities will ensure that legitimate journalists can carry out their duty without facing interference or excessive use of force”.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday merely commented that Lawrence “had not identified himself as a journalist” at the time he was detained.
On the sidelines, Swiss public television RTS also indicated early this morning that its correspondent in Shanghai, Michael Peuker, was “briefly detained” on Sunday night following a connection in which he himself had recounted being “surrounded by three police officers” while gesturing to them trying to ask them for calm while he was live on the air.
After “many minutes of negotiations” with a local police officer, Peuker and his camera were released, although the officers retained his equipment to “verify” its contents before returning it to the journalists.
Authorities today fenced off the sidewalks of the Shanghainese street where the protests took place and are also trying to prevent photos from being taken of the site.
Can China get out of COVID zero?
Meanwhile, the number of new infections in China broke its record today for the fifth consecutive day with 40,347 cases detected on the previous day, of which 36,525 (90.5%) are asymptomatic.
In addition, around two million people nationwide are under centralized quarantine or medical observation because they are infected or are close contacts of infected persons, not including citizens under generalized confinement imposed by local authorities.
The official press has not reported the incidents, but the Global Times newspaper stressed today in its editorials that the authorities must “optimize” the response to the virus.
However, the newspaper acknowledges that despite the current policy, which involves countless controls and confinements, “China faces a tougher battle, with large-scale domestic transmission. We must be prepared for even worse scenarios”.
“The Chinese healthcare system is going to have a very difficult time dealing with a large increase in infections in winter. But maintaining the current ‘zero covid’ policy would mean even stricter measures, more testing and longer confinements. Given the fatigue and the social and economic impact, China will have no choice but to change its strategy,” predicts epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong, reports the South China Morning Post.
According to the expert, China should set aside PCR testing, allow home quarantines for mild cases and devote its efforts to mitigation rather than prevention.