Barely a month after granting himself new powers as China’s potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger of the kind not seen for decades, sparked by his “zero COVID” strategy that will soon enter its fourth year.
Demonstrators poured into the streets over the weekend in cities including Shanghai and Beijing, criticizing the policy, confronting police — and even calling for Xi to step down. On Monday, demonstrators gathered in the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong, where the pro-democracy movement was all but snuffed out by a harsh crackdown following monthslong demonstrations that began in 2019.
Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong chanted “oppose dictatorship” and “Freedom! Freedom!” Floral tributes were laid in the Central district that had been the epicenter of previous protests.
The widespread demonstrations are unprecedented since the army crushed the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Most protesters focused their anger on restrictions that can confine families to their homes for months and have been criticized as neither scientific nor effective. Some complained the system is failing to respond to their needs.
The cries for the resignation of Xi and the end of the Communist Party that has ruled China for 73 years could be deemed sedition, which is punishable by prison.
In response, police in Shanghai used pepper spray to drive away demonstrators, and dozens were detained in police sweeps and taken away in police vans and buses. China’s vast internal security apparatus is also famed for identifying people it considers troublemakers and picking them up later when few are watching.
The possibility of more protests is unclear. Government censors scrubbed the internet of videos and messages supporting them. And analysts say unless divisions emerge, the Communist Party should be able to contain the dissent.