After China experienced its boldest and most widespread protests in decades and defied Xi Jinping, a Communist Party leader who values his reputation for ironclad authority, its security apparatus is scrambling to regain control.
Public safety personnel and vehicles have covered potential protest sites. Police officers are searching the cellphones of some residents for banned apps. Officers go to the homes of would-be protesters to warn them about illegal activities and take some away for questioning. Censors remove protest symbols and slogans from social media.
The campaign to crack down on the protests on multiple fronts draws on the Party’s decades-old toolbox of repression and surveillance, which Mr. Xi has honed in his quest for unswerving dominance. He has expanded police forces, promoted loyal security leaders to key positions, and declared that “political security” – for him and for the party – must be the bedrock of national security.
Yet even as Mr Xi rolls out the police, he projects an undisturbed semblance of business as usual.
He has remained silent on the rare open challenge to his rule that erupted at the protests, including calls for his resignation. He seems to be betting that by outwardly ignoring the demonstrations, he can dampen their momentum while the security services roll in and the party’s army of online loyalists seek to discredit the protesters as tools of American-led subversion.
“They say as little as possible for as long as possible,” said William Hurst, a University of Cambridge professor who studies politics and protest in China. “If they speak, it could escalate the situation, so it’s better to sit back and pretend nothing is happening.”
On Tuesday, the People’s Daily, the party’s main newspaper, carried Mr Xi’s talks with the visiting Mongolian president and a front-page celebration of Mr Xi’s decade in power, but no word on the protests, China’s most widespread since Tiananmen Square Square democracy movement of 1989.
Still, there seems to be no doubt that from the guarded seclusion of the party’s Zhongnanhai command compound in Beijing, Mr. Xi and his advisers have been monitoring the unrest and planning a response. Since the 1989 protests, Chinese leaders have focused on the dangers of anti-government social movements, determined to nip them in the bud and avoid the trauma of another bloody crackdown.
Still, the protests that erupted in parts of Shanghai, Beijing and other Chinese cities over the weekend appeared to catch leaders off guard.
Collective public anger first rose in Urumqi, a city in western China where at least 10 people died in an apartment fire last week. Many people have said, despite official denials, that the deaths were caused by pandemic restrictions preventing residents from leaving their block of flats. Protests over the tragedy escalated into broader denunciations of China’s pandemic policies, as well as calls by some for democracy, a free press and other ideals anathema to the country’s authoritarian rulers.
China’s security forces regrouped this week, making new demonstrations much more difficult and risky.
“I’m pretty sure that the security apparatus will get a grip on it pretty quickly,” says H. Christoph Steinhardt, a researcher at the University of Vienna who studies protest patterns in China. “I think they will start by identifying ringleaders and then leaning on them, combined with preventive policing in public areas.”
In Hangzhou, a prosperous city about 100 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, the police force is on hand an attempted demonstration broken up on Monday night, yelled at passers-by and dragged away a woman who was screaming. dozens of people also confronted officers who had arrested someone by chanting “free them”.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, a A hundred or so cops Wearing helmets and white body armor to potentially ward off Covid, they banged their clubs on their shields as they walked down a street, warning people not to hang around.
Officials across China have visited protesters’ homes or stopped possible protesters on the street. They check their phones for apps banned in China, delete pictures of demonstrations and warn people not to take to the streets again.
“When the police came to my door, I had to delete my text notes,” said a Beijing resident who joined a vigil near the Liangma River on Sunday night. She requested that only her last name, Chen, be used, citing fear of police reprisals.
Ms Chen said she was motivated by sadness and frustration at the strict “zero Covid” guidelines that have been enforced for nearly three years, including citywide lockdowns and constant Covid testing.
“I really didn’t have any concrete slogans and demands,” she said. “It was more about the pent-up pain of so many years.”
Officials appear to be trying to quietly address the most common complaints about China’s Covid restrictions, which have disrupted life, school and business.
Many residents have complained about a 20-point rulebook enacted by the government on Nov. 11 that initially appeared to promise an easing of pandemic restrictions. But it has had little effect on the ground, where local officials are under immense pressure to quell Covid outbreaks.
Since the weekend’s protests, local governments across China have said they will prevent residents from being confined in their homes any longer than necessary to prevent outbreaks from spreading. On Tuesday, an article from Xinhua, the main state news agency, urged officials to show sympathy to frustrated residents.
“All areas and departments need to be more patient to allay public fears,” the article said. “Fighting the pandemic is complex, arduous and repetitive, and we must listen to the public’s righteous voice.”
Avoiding direct mention of the protests by Chinese leaders or in state media is probably a deliberate strategy to try to downplay their importance. In 1989, the students occupying Tiananmen Square fumed after an editorial in the party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, condemned them as infiltrated by agents of the riot. The unrest has not reached the scale this time, and officials appear to have learned their lesson.
“The moment the central leadership takes an official line, it salutes the protests with an official response and admits they are to be reckoned with, giving them a status they would rather deny them,” said Prof Hurst of Cambridge University .
In Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, the police bundled some demonstrators away. Some were released after a few days in detention. Particular attention was paid to university students. At Tsinghua University, a prestigious school in Beijing, a crowd of hundreds of students erupted in calls for “democracy and the rule of law” and “freedom of expression” in what is probably the boldest campus protest.
Tsinghua administrators on Sunday said students could go into winter break earlier, offering free train or plane travel, a move that may have been designed to defuse fresh protests.
In China, such a reaction is considered cautious. But that cannot last, and it does not mean that the Communist Party authorities will treat all protesters leniently. Rather than speak out directly, the party has allowed loyalists on social media to knowingly or unknowingly portray the protesters as pawns in Western efforts to destabilize China and discredit its “zero Covid” policies.
Since Monday, a growing chorus of these online commentators have linked the protests to the “color revolution,” a term borrowed from Russia to describe alleged Western-backed plans to sow insurgency in rival states. Some have claimed the protesters are henchmen of those who rocked Hong Kong in 2019, prompting Mr Xi to push through a national security law and a sweeping crackdown on anti-government activists there.
“Their style of stirring up trouble is the typical color revolution style,” said one comment on the weekend protests, which spread to unofficial Chinese websites and social media. The leaders of the protests, it was said, “used their worst malice to persuade members of the public who do not understand their true nature — particularly university students and intellectuals whose minds are stuffed with Western ideas — to join.”
In recent years, intimidation by the authorities and a heavy police presence would probably have been enough to stifle any protest movement that began. This time, some protesters vowed to keep pressuring the Chinese government. On social media groups operating beyond China’s censorship firewall, they have shared ideas on how to move in smaller clusters, use multiple phones and figure out how to track and share information about police movements.
But Mr. Xi’s security options are far from exhausted. China has about 2 million regular police officers—relatively few by some standards for its 1.4 billion people—but also a million or more armed People’s Police troops trained in riot suppression, and legions of security forces and auxiliary police. Finally, there is the Chinese military. And as with the Hong Kong raid, Chinese authorities could make more arrests after the commotion has subsided.
Edward Luo, a 23-year-old who observed Sunday’s protests in Shanghai, said he was a student in Hong Kong during the 2019 protests and was concerned that the young protesters in Shanghai are not realizing the risks they face.
“I think some people weren’t scared, and there were some students who might not understand how much pressure this state can put on them,” he said. “Like a newborn calf that is not afraid of a tiger.”
Joy Dong, Olivia Wang and Amy Chang Chien contributed coverage.