China warns of 'crackdown' after weekend of widespread zero-Covid protests

© Noel Celis, AFP

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.

A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, was the catalyst for the outrage, with protesters taking to the streets in cities around China.

The demonstrators said Covid-19 restrictions were to blame for hampering rescue efforts in Urumqi, claims the government swiftly denied.

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.

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 possible warning to the protesters, which the readout published in state news agency Xinhua did not mention directly.

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

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