BEIJING (AP) — Chinese universities sent students home and police fanned out in Beijing and Shanghai to prevent more protests on Tuesday after crowds angry over strict anti-virus restrictions called for leader Xi Jinping to resign in the biggest show of public discord in decades.
Authorities eased some controls after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong, but insisted they would stick to a “zero COVID” strategy that has locked millions of people into homes for months. Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and tightened surveillance.
With police present, there were no protests on Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities that were the scene of the most widespread protests over the weekend since the army crushed the student-led pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In Hong Kong, about a dozen people, mostly from the mainland, protested outside a university.
Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students protested over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and southern Guangdong province sent students home. The schools said they were protected from COVID-19, but spreading them to remote communities also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism, including the Tiananmen protests.
On Sunday, Tsinghua students were told they could go home early this semester. The school, Xi’s alma mater, arranged buses to take them to the train station or airport.
Nine student dormitories in Tsinghua were closed Monday after some students tested positive for COVID-19, according to one who noted that the closure would make it difficult for crowds to gather. The student gave only his last name, Chen, for fear of retaliation from authorities.
Beijing Forestry University also said it would ensure students return home. It said the teachers and students all tested negative for the virus.
At least 10 universities have sent students home. Schools said classes and final exams would be conducted online.
Authorities hope to “defuse the situation” by evacuating campuses, said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
Depending on how tough the government takes, groups may take turns protesting, he said.
Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid drawing attention to the scale of the protests or encouraging others. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were removed by the ruling party’s massive online censorship apparatus.
There were no announcements of detentions, although reporters saw protesters being taken away by police, and authorities warned some detained protesters not to demonstrate again.
In Shanghai, according to a witness, police detained pedestrians on Monday night and checked their phones, possibly looking for apps like Twitter that are banned in China or footage of protests. The witness, who insisted on anonymity for fear of arrest, said he was heading to a protest but found no crowd there when he arrived.
Images from The Associated Press of photos from a weekend protest showed police shoving people into cars. Some people were also dragged into police raids after the demonstrations ended.
A person who lived near the site of a protest in Shanghai was detained on Sunday and held until Tuesday morning, according to two friends who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation from authorities.
In Beijing, police on Monday visited a resident who had attended a protest the night before, according to a friend who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. He said police questioned the resident and warned him not to go to more protests.
On Tuesday, protesters at the University of Hong Kong chanted against virus restrictions and held up sheets of paper with critical slogans. Some onlookers joined in their chants.
The demonstrators held signs reading “Say No to COVID Panic” and “Not Dictatorship, Democracy”.
One of them chanted, “We are not foreign forces, but your classmates.” Chinese authorities often try to discredit domestic critics by saying they work for foreign powers.
“Zero COVID” has helped keep the number of cases below that of the United States and other major countries, but global health experts increasingly say it is unsustainable.
Beijing needs to make its approach “very focused” on mitigating economic disruption, the head of the International Monetary Fund told The Associated Press Tuesday in an interview.
“We see how important it is to move away from mass lockdowns,” said IMF director Kristalina Georgieva in Berlin. “So that targeting makes it possible to contain the spread of COVID without significant economic costs.”
However, economists and health experts warn that Beijing cannot relax the controls on most travelers from China until tens of millions of elderly people are vaccinated. They say this means “zero COVID” may not end for another year.
On Tuesday, the National Health Commission announced plans to encourage seniors to get vaccinated with publicity campaigns, outreach through community centers and mobile vaccination sites to reach people who can’t leave their homes.
Public tolerance for the restrictions has eroded as some people confined at home said they struggled to access food and medicine.
The Chinese Communist Party pledged to ease disruptions last month, but a spike in infections prompted cities to tighten controls.
The weekend protests were sparked by anger over the death of at least 10 people in a fire last week in China’s far west, that sparked angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by antivirus checks.
Most demonstrators complained of excessive restrictions, but some turned their anger on Xi, at least China’s most powerful leader since the 1980s.
In a video verified by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Resign!” Such direct criticism of Xi is unprecedented.
Sympathy protests have been held abroad and foreign governments have called on Beijing to hold back.
“We support the right of people everywhere to protest peacefully, to express their views, their concerns and their frustrations,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Bucharest, Romania.
Meanwhile, the British government summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest the arrest and assault of a BBC cameraman in Shanghai.
Media freedom “is something very, very much at the heart of the British belief system,” said Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian disputed the British version of events. Zhao said the journalist, Edward Lawrence, was unable to identify himself and accused the BBC of distorting the story.
Asked about criticism of the crackdown, Zhao defended Beijing’s anti-virus strategy, saying the public’s legal rights are protected by law.
The government is trying to “provide maximum protection for people’s lives and health while minimizing the impact of COVID on social and economic development,” he said.
Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 demonstrations who lives in exile, said the protest “symbolizes the beginning of a new era in China … in which Chinese civil society has decided not to remain silent and to confront tyranny. “
But he warned at a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, that authorities would likely respond with “more violence to violently suppress protesters.” ___
Kang reported from Shanghai and Wu from Taipei, Taiwan. Associated Press writers Kanis Leung in Hong Kong, Jill Lawless in London, David McHugh in Berlin, and Ellen Knickmeyer in Bucharest, Romania contributed.