SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Nov 30 (Reuters) – People in China’s manufacturing hub Guangzhou clashed with riot police in white hazmat suits on Tuesday night, videos on social media showed, as frustration over strict COVID-19 rules simmered for three years later the pandemic.
Clashes in the southern city marked an escalation from protests in the commercial center of Shanghai, the capital Beijing and other cities over the weekend in mainland China, the biggest wave of civil disobedience since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago.
Discontent is growing as China’s COVID-hit economy sputters after decades of breakneck growth that formed the basis of an unwritten social contract between the ruling Communist Party and a population whose freedoms were dramatically curtailed under Xi.
In a video posted on Twitter, dozens of riot police in all-white pandemic gear, holding shields over their heads, advanced in formation over what appeared to be knocked down containment barriers as objects flew towards them.
Police were later seen escorting a number of people in handcuffs to an undisclosed location.
Another video showed people throwing objects at police, while a third showed tear gas landing in the middle of a small crowd on a narrow street, with people running to escape the fumes.
Reuters confirmed the videos were shot in Guangzhou’s Haiju district, the scene linked to COVID disturbances two weeks ago, but could not determine when the videos were taken or the exact sequence of events and what caused the collisions.
Posts on social media said the collisions happened on Tuesday evening and were caused by a dispute over blocked curbs.
The government of Guangzhou, a city hit hard by the latest wave of infections, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated that at least 27 demonstrations took place in China from Saturday to Monday. Australian think tank ASPI counted 43 protests in 22 cities.
Home to many migrant factory workers, Guangzhou is a sprawling port city north of Hong Kong in Guangdong province, where officials announced late Tuesday that they would allow close contacts of COVID cases to be quarantined at home instead of being forced to go in shelters.
The decision broke the usual practice under China’s zero-covid policy.
In Zhengzhou, the site of a major Foxconn factory making Apple iPhones that has been the scene of worker unrest over COVID, officials announced the “orderly” reopening of businesses, including supermarkets, gyms and restaurants.
However, they also published a long list of buildings that will remain under lockdown.
Hours before those announcements, national health officials said on Tuesday that China would respond to “urgent concerns” raised by the public and that COVID rules should be applied more flexibly, according to each region’s conditions.
But while the easing of some measures, which comes as China registers a daily record number of COVID cases, appears to be an attempt to reassure the public, authorities have also begun to looking for who were at the last protests.
“The police came to my front door to question me about all this and make me fill out a written report,” a Beijing resident, who declined to be named, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Another resident said some friends who had posted videos of protests on social media were taken to a police station and asked to sign a pledge saying they would “not do this again”.
It was not clear how authorities identified the people they wanted to question, or how many such people authorities contacted.
Beijing’s Public Security Bureau had no comment.
On Wednesday, several police cars and security personnel were dispatched to Beijing’s East Bridge, where a protest was held three days earlier.
In a statement unrelated to the protests, the Communist Party’s top body in charge of law enforcement agencies said late Tuesday that China would resolutely deal with “infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces.”
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission also said that “illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order” will not be tolerated.
The Foreign Office said rights and freedoms must be exercised within the law.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that protesters in China should not be harmed.
COVID has spread despite China largely isolating itself from the world and requiring significant casualties of hundreds of millions to comply with relentless testing and prolonged isolation.
Although the number of infections and deaths is low by global standards, analysts say reopening before vaccination levels rise could lead to widespread illness and deaths and overburden hospitals.
The lockdown has battered the economy, disrupting global supply chains and roiling financial markets.
Data on Wednesday showed that manufacturing and services activity in China for November posted the lowest readings since Shanghai’s two-month lockdown began in April. Read more
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, noted a possible lowering of China’s growth forecasts.
Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Yu Lun Tien in Beijing; Written by Marius Zacharias; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsell
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