China threatened to “resolutely crack down” on “hostile forces” as historic protests continued overnight — including wild street battles with riot cops decked out in hazmat suits.
Communist Party leaders gave the ominous warning without directly mentioning the country-wide rallies, the largest show of dissent in the 33 years since protests in Tiananmen Square ended in horror and bloodshed.
However, in a statement Tuesday, the party’s top body in charge of law enforcement agencies stated its priority as maintaining “effective measures” to “resolutely safeguard national security.”
“We must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law, resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order and effectively maintain overall social stability,” the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said.
Tuesday’s warning came as protests continued despite a heavy-handed crackdown by cops with the threat of lengthy prison sentences.
The anger that started with protests against China’s brutal “zero-COVID policies” — but widened to calls for President Xi Jinping to step down — has led to at least 43 protests in 22 cities, according to Australia’s ASPI think tank. That tally does not yet include those later Tuesday.
Late Tuesday, a series of videos showed cheering protesters clashing with riot cops in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district.
One clip showed dozens of police clad in white hazmat suits holding shields over their heads as they advanced in formation over what appeared to be torn down lockdown barriers as objects flew at them.
People are seen throwing objects at the police, who were then seen taking nearly a dozen men away with their hands bound with cable ties.
Another video clip showed a tear gas canister landing amidst a small crowd on a narrow street, sending people fleeing.
A resident named Chen told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that at least 100 cops descended on the area to stop the protests.
The wave of protests stemmed from simmering frustrations over China’s “zero-COVID” policy that — three years into the pandemic — still leaves millions under lockdown and quarantine, limiting their access to food and medicine while ravaging the economy and severely restricting travel.
That anger finally boiled over after 10 people died last week in an apartment fire, which was widely blamed on them being shuttered inside during the lockdowns.
It soon also led to unprecedented calls for Xi to step down — speech considered subversive and punishable with lengthy prison terms.
The main symbol of the protests has become holding up blank pieces of white paper to demonstrate their lack of free speech rights.
Even before Tuesday’s warning to “resolutely crack down” on “hostile forces,” there had been a massive show of force by security services to deter gatherings in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Hundreds of SUVs, vans and armored vehicles with flashing lights were parked along city streets Wednesday while police and paramilitary forces conducted random ID checks and searched people’s mobile phones for photos, banned apps or other potential evidence that they had taken part in the demonstrations.
Many students have also been sent home from universities, which have been traditional hotbeds of activism, including the Tiananmen protests.
Officials appeared to be trying to keep the crackdown out of sight, with social media posts about protests getting deleted by the party’s vast online censorship apparatus.
On Wednesday, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said that “the Chinese people have a right to protest peacefully.”
“They have a right to make their views known. They have a right to be heard. That’s a fundamental right around the world. It should be. And that right should not be hindered with, and it shouldn’t be interfered with,” he stressed.
He also defended the “freedom of the press” amid reports that foreign reporters had been arrested and even beaten by Chinese police.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended China’s approach to handling COVID-19 — and said other nations should mind their own business.
“We hope they will first heed their own peoples’ voices and interests instead of pointing fingers at others,” Zhao told reporters.
With Post wires