February 8, 2023

Juan Kabayan

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China vows crackdown on ‘hostile forces’

BEIJING: China’s ruling Communist Party has vowed to “resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces,” following the largest street demonstrations in decades staged by citizens fed up with strict anti-coronavirus restrictions.

The statement from the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission on Tuesday night came amid a massive show of force by security services to deter a reoccurrence of the protests that broke out over the weekend in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and several other cities.

While it did not directly address the protests, the statement serves as a reminder of the party’s determination to enforce its rule.

Hundreds of sports utility vehicles, vans and armored vehicles with flashing lights were parked along city streets on 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.

The number of people who have been detained at the demonstrations and in follow-up police actions is not known.

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The commission’s statement, issued after an expanded session on Monday presided over by its head Chen Wenqing, a member of the party’s 24-member Politburo, said the meeting aimed to review the outcomes of October’s 20th party congress.

At that event, Xi granted himself a third five-year term as secretary-general, potentially making him China’s leader for life, while stacking key bodies with loyalists and eliminating opposing voices.

“The meeting emphasized that political and legal organs must take effective measures to … resolutely safeguard national security and social stability,” the statement said.

“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,” it added.

Yet, less than a month after seemingly ensuring his political future and unrivaled dominance, Xi, who has signaled he favors regime stability above all, is facing his biggest public challenge yet.

He and the party are yet to directly address the unrest, which spread to college campuses and the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong, as well as sparking sympathy protests abroad.

Most protesters focused their ire on the “zero-Covid” policy that has placed millions under lockdown and quarantine, limiting their access to food and medicine while ravaging the economy and severely restricting travel. Many mocked the government’s ever-changing line of reasoning, as well as claims that “hostile outside foreign forces” were stirring the wave of anger.

Yet bolder voices called for greater freedom and democracy and for Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, as well as the party he leads, to step down — speech considered subversive and punishable with lengthy prison terms. Some held up blank pieces of white paper to demonstrate their lack of free speech rights.

The weekend protests were sparked by anger over the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire on November 24 in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region that prompted angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by anti-virus controls.

Authorities eased some controls and announced a new push to vaccinate vulnerable groups after the demonstrations, but maintained they would stick to the zero-Covid strategy.

The party had already promised last month to reduce disruptions, but a spike in infections swiftly prompted party cadres under intense pressure to tighten controls in an effort to prevent outbreaks.

The National Health Commission on Wednesday reported 37,612 cases detected over the previous 24 hours, while the death toll remained unchanged at 5,233.

Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students protested over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong sent students home in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism including the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid encouraging others by drawing attention to the scale of the protests. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were deleted by the party’s vast online censorship apparatus.