China threatened to “clash firmly” against “hostile forces” as historic protests continued overnight – including wild street brawls with riot police dressed in hazmat suits.
Communist Party leaders issued the dire warning without directly mentioning the nationwide rallies, the largest expression of dissent in the 33 years since the Tiananmen Square protests ended in horror and bloodshed.
However, in a statement Tuesday, the party’s top body responsible for law enforcement agencies stated that its priority is to maintain “effective measures” to “resolutely safeguard national security.”
“We must act resolutely against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law, act resolutely against illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order, and effectively maintain overall social stability,” the Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs said.
Tuesday’s warning came as protests continued despite a police crackdown with the threat of long jail terms.
The anger that began with protests against China’s brutal “zero COVID policy” – but widened to calls for President Xi Jinping to resign – has led to at least 43 protests in 22 cities, according to the Australian ASPI think tank. That count does not yet include that of later Tuesday.
On Tuesday night, a series of videos showed cheering protesters clashing with riot police in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district.
A clip showed dozens of police officers dressed in white hazmat suits with shields overhead as they moved in formation over what appeared to be downed barrier barriers as objects flew toward them.
People were seen throwing objects at police, who then took away nearly a dozen men with their hands tied with cable ties.
Another video clip showed a tear gas grenade landing in a narrow street amidst a small crowd, causing people to flee.
A resident named Chen told Agence France-Presse that at least 100 officers have 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 – continues to quarantine millions of people, restrict their access to food and medicine, while devastating the economy and travel severely restricted.
That anger eventually boiled over after 10 people died in an apartment fire last week, which was widely blamed for being locked inside during the lockdowns.
It quickly sparked unprecedented calls for Xi to step down – speech deemed subversive and punishable by long prison terms.
The main symbol of the protests is holding up blank sheets of white paper to demonstrate their lack of freedom of expression.
Even before Tuesday’s warning to “crack down decisively” against “hostile forces”, there was a massive show of force by security forces to deter rallies in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Hundreds of SUVs, vans and armored vehicles with flashing lights were parked on city streets on Wednesday as police and paramilitary forces conducted random identity checks and searched people’s cellphones for photos, banned apps or other possible evidence they had participated 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 being taken down by the party’s massive online censorship apparatus.
On Wednesday, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said that “the Chinese people have the right to protest peacefully.”
“They have the right to express their opinion. They have the right to be heard. That is a fundamental right all over the world. It should be. And that right must not be hindered, and no interventions must be made,” he stressed.
He also defended “freedom of the press” amid reports that foreign reporters had been arrested and even beaten by Chinese police.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian defended China’s approach to dealing with COVID-19 — saying other countries should mind their own business.
“We hope they listen to the voices and interests of their own people first, rather than pointing fingers at others,” Zhao told reporters.
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