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China responds to rare protests with a security "crackdown" to "maintain overall social stability"

COVID lockdown protests sweep across China
COVID lockdown protests sweep across China 03:06

Beijing — The federal agency in charge of China's law enforcement authorities, including the police, issued a stern warning Tuesday calling for a "crackdown" against "hostile forces and infiltrative activities" just days after unprecedented demonstrations over the country's intense anti-COVID-19 measures bubbled up in more than 10 cities. Public protests in China's tightly controlled society are incredibly rare, but last weekend people not only took to the streets to voice their frustration over the draconian "zero-COVID" policy of President Xi Jinping, but they called for him to step down over it.

The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said it was time to crack down on "illegal criminal behavior that has disrupted social order," stressing the need to "maintain overall social stability."

Chinese citizens quickly felt the impact of the tightened security measures. Videos circulated widely on China's social media platforms showed police in the megacity of Shanghai, which saw some of the biggest protests, checking the smartphones of subway passengers and residents walking down streets near the weekend protest site.

Virus Outbreak China
A delivery driver stands near a policeman keeping watch from inside a vehicle near the site of a weekend protest in Beijing, Nov. 30, 2022. Andy Wong/AP

A screenshot showing an apparent chat among government officials was leaked online, purportedly showing authorities asking police officers to check people's phones for VPN software that could enable them to circumvent China's strict web censorship rules and foreign social media network apps that are banned in China, such as Twitter and Instagram. Anyone found with such software would reportedly have their personal information logged.

As the police's stepped-up actions became clear early this week, many Chinese chose to remove such software from their phones preemptively, opting to use VPNs and foreign social platforms only while at home. 

Chinese authorities have not said how many people were detained during the wave of protests over the weekend.

Biden and Congress face supply chain uncertainty amid possible rail strike, Chinese unrest 05:22

As the Biden administration attempts to walk a fine line between upholding the principle of free speech, while seeking to avoid exacerbating U.S.-Chinese tensions that could deepen a global economic crisis, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns gave a frank assessment of the unrest earlier this week.

"We believe the Chinese people have a right to protest peacefully," Burns said during an online forum hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "They have a right to make their views known. They have a right to be heard. That's a fundamental right around the world. It should be. And that right should not be hindered with, and it shouldn't be interfered with."

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