BEIJING (AP) — Chinese universities are sending students home as the ruling Communist Party tightens virus controls and tries to prevent further protests after crowds angered by its tough “zero COVID” restrictions called on the President Xi Jinping to step down in the biggest show of public dissent in decades.
With police out in force, there was no word of protests Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major cities.
Some virus restrictions were eased on Monday in a possible attempt to defuse public anger after weekend protests in at least eight cities. But the ruling party affirmed its “zero COVID” strategy, which confined millions of people to their homes in a bid to isolate every infection.
Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater, where students protested on Sunday, and other schools in Beijing and the southern province of Guangdong said they were protecting students from COVID-19. But dispersing them to distant hometowns also reduces the likelihood of increased activism in the wake of campus protests over the weekend.
Some universities have organized buses to take students to train stations. They said classes and final exams would be held online.
“We will arrange for student volunteers to return to their hometowns,” Beijing Forestry University said on its website. He said his teachers and students have all tested negative for the virus.
Campuses were hotbeds of activism during the last push for democratic reform in the 1980s, culminating in the 1989 student movement centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square which was crushed by the military.
By sending the students home, authorities hope to “de-escalate the situation”, said Dali Yang, a China policy expert at the University of Chicago.
“For students, it has been confinement on campuses for months. For others, of course, job prospects have been destroyed, business and all adding to the frustrations. There was quite a bit of anxiety,” Yang said.
Authorities have ordered mass testing and imposed other controls in parts of China following a spike in infections. But the decision to disperse the students was unusual at a time when many cities are telling the public to avoid travel and impose travel controls.
In Hong Kong, about 50 mainland Chinese students demonstrated at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Monday in a demonstration in support of mainland residents. They lit candles and chanted: “No PCR tests but freedom!” and “Oppose the dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”
The rally and another similar one in Hong Kong’s financial district were the largest protests in Chinese territory in more than a year under rules imposed to crush a pro-democracy movement.
“Zero COVID” has helped keep China’s case count lower than the United States and other major countries. But public acceptance has eroded as people in some areas have been confined to their homes for up to four months and say they don’t have reliable access to food and medicine.
The Chinese Communist Party promised last month to reduce disruption by changing quarantine and other rules. But a spike in infections has prompted cities to tighten controls, fueling public frustration.
On Tuesday, the number of new coronavirus cases fell slightly to 38,421 after setting new records in recent days. Of these, 34,860 showed no symptoms.
While China’s numbers remain low compared to the United States and other countries, few Chinese have been exposed to the virus and vaccines developed in China are considered far less effective than those used overseas. Authorities are believed to fear a wave of infections and deaths that could overwhelm the healthcare system if they lift ‘zero COVID’ measures.
Most protesters complain of excessive restrictions, but some have turned their anger on Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s. In video verified by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai chanted on Saturday “Xi Jinping!” Resign! CCP! Resign!”
On Monday, the Beijing city government announced it would no longer install gates to block access to apartment complexes where infections are detected.
He made no mention of a fire last week in Urumqi that killed at least 10 people. It sparked furious questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other virus checks.
Urumqi and another city in the Xinjiang region in the northwest announced that markets and other businesses in areas deemed to be at low risk of infection would reopen this week and public bus service would resume.
The Urumqi fire provided the “trigger for people to come out to speak out”, Yang said. Depending on the strength of the government’s stance, protests could continue on a “rotating” basis, with new groups taking turns, he said.
Shows of sympathy have taken place overseas, and foreign governments have called on Beijing to exercise restraint.
Asked about the protests during a Monday briefing, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that “obviously there are people in China who have concerns about this. “, referring to blockages.
“These protesters speak for themselves,” Kirby said. “What we are doing is making it clear that we support the right to peaceful protest.”
The government of the autonomous island republic of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, also commented on the protests.
“We call on the Chinese authorities to … actively respond to people’s reasonable demands and let society in mainland China return to normal as soon as possible,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said during a briefing. weekly press conference.
Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 protests who now lives in exile, called the protests “an important harbinger of Xi Jinping’s third term in power.” This means that he will face many challenges over the next five years.
The Chinese president recently began a breakaway third five-year term as leader of the Communist Party.
“This protest symbolizes the start of a new era in China…in which Chinese civil society has decided not to be silent and to confront tyranny,” Wang said at a press conference in China. Taipei, warning that authorities risked responding with “stronger force to violently suppress protesters.