China issues grim threat: 'This is going to be very ugly'

China's top security body called for a "crackdown" against "hostile forces" on Tuesday, after a weekend of protests in major cities opposing Covid lockdowns and demanding greater political freedoms.

The stark warning came after security services were out in force across China following demonstrations not seen in decades, as anger over unrelenting lockdowns fuelled deep-rooted frustration with the political system.

China is the world's last major economy still wedded to a zero-Covid policy, which compels local governments to impose snap lockdowns and quarantine orders, and limit freedom of movement in response to minor outbreaks.

Heavy police presence was filmed in numerous cities while tanks were reportedly spotted in Xuzhou city in videos shared to social media. Source: Jennifer Zeng/Twitter
Heavy police presence was filmed in numerous cities while tanks were reportedly spotted in Xuzhou city in videos shared to social media. Source: Jennifer Zeng/Twitter

Anger over the lockdowns has widened to calls for political change, with protesters holding up blank sheets of paper to symbolise the pervasive censorship to which the world's most populous country is subjected.

On Tuesday, the ruling Communist Party's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission called for a "crackdown" on what it described as "hostile forces" — a veiled warning to the protesters.

The body — which oversees all domestic law enforcement in China — also agreed at its meeting that it was time to "crack down on illegal criminal acts that disrupt social order" as well as "safeguard overall social stability."

It's the largest display of social disobedience since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent massacre at the hands of the Chinese government. Reacting to the warning, geopolitical analyst and author Peter Zeihan openly worried about the prospect of a violent crackdown in China's streets if protests persist.

"This is going to be very, very ugly," he tweeted.

The warning came after a heavy police presence across cities on Monday and Tuesday appeared to have quelled protests for the time being.

In another sign of the government's zero-tolerance of dissent, people who had attended weekend rallies in the Chinese capital told AFP on Monday they had received phone calls from law enforcement officers demanding information about their movements.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

'Liberty or death'

On Tuesday hundreds of officers appeared to have been drawn back from the streets of a rain-drenched Shanghai, where weekend protests had seen bold calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

In Beijing, AFP reporters saw a few marked and unmarked police vehicles but no sign of protesters at an intersection near the Asian Games Village, where a demonstration had been planned for Tuesday night.

Freezing temperatures of minus nine degrees Celsius likely also kept protesters away. Some rallies did go ahead elsewhere on Monday and Tuesday, however.

At Hong Kong's oldest university, over a dozen people led the crowd Tuesday in chanting slogans such as "give me liberty or give me death".

"We are not foreign forces, we are Chinese citizens. China should have different voices," one woman shouted.

Police cars patrol a street in an area where a message that circulated online called on people to gather for a protest in Beijing on Tuesday
Police cars patrol a street in an area where a message that circulated online called on people to gather for a protest in Beijing on Tuesday. Source: Reuters

Government seeks pathway out with vaccination drive

While China's leaders are committed to zero-Covid, there have been some signs that central authorities may be seeking a path out of the rigid policy.

China's National Health Commission (NHC) announced on Tuesday a renewed effort to expand low vaccination rates among the elderly — long seen as a key obstacle to relaxing the measures.

Many fear that opening the country up while swaths of the population remain not fully immunised could overwhelm China's healthcare system and cause more than a million deaths.

Just 65.8 percent of people over 80 are fully vaccinated, NHC officials told a news conference.

China has also not yet approved mRNA vaccines, which are proven to be more effective, for public use. Instead it is relying on less-effective Chinese-made vaccines.

AFP

Do you have a story tip? Email: newsroomau@yahoonews.com.

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.