Some Chinese unis send students home

Chinese universities have sent students home and police have fanned out in Beijing and Shanghai to prevent more protests after crowds angered by severe anti-virus restrictions called for leader Xi Jinping to resign in the biggest show of public dissent in decades.

Authorities have eased some controls after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong – but showed no sign of backing off their larger “zero-COVID” strategy that has confined millions of people to their homes for months at a time.

Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and stepped up surveillance.

With police out in force, there was no word of protests on Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities where crowds rallied over the weekend.

Those widespread demonstrations were unprecedented since the army crushed the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

A far smaller group did gather at a university in Hong Kong on Tuesday to protest virus restrictions.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students rallied over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong said they were protecting students from COVID-19 by sending them home.

But dispersing them to far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations.

Chinese leaders are especially wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism including the Tiananmen protests.

On Sunday, Tsinghua students were told they could go home early for the semester and that the school would arrange buses to take them to the train station or airport.

Nine student dorms at Tsinghua were closed on Monday after some students tested positive for COVID-19, according to one who noted the closure would make it hard for crowds to gather.

The student gave only his surname, Chen, for fear of retribution from authorities.

Beijing Forestry University also said it would arrange for students to return home.

It said its faculty and students all tested negative for the virus.

Universities said classes and final exams would be conducted online.

Authorities hope to “defuse the situation” by clearing out campuses, Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, said.

Depending on how tough a position the government takes, protests could continue on a “rotational” basis, with new groups taking turns, he said.

But many people are nervous after police detained some protesters and warned them against demonstrating again.

On Tuesday, about a dozen people gathered at the University of Hong Kong, chanting against virus restrictions and holding up sheets of paper with critical slogans.

Most were from the mainland, which has a separate legal system from the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, and some spectators joined in their chants.

The protesters held signs that read “Say no to COVID panic” and “No dictatorship but democracy”.

One chanted: “We’re not foreign forces but your classmates” – a reference to the fact that Chinese authorities often accuse foreign powers of fomenting dissent.

China’s “zero-COVID” policy has helped keep case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries but global health experts have increasingly criticised the methods as unsustainable.

The United Kingdom government summoned China’s ambassador as a protest over the arrest and beating of a BBC cameraman in Shanghai.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said that “it is incredibly important that we protect media freedom. It is something very, very much at the heart of the UK’s belief system”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian disputed the UK version of events, saying Edward Lawrence failed to identify himself as a journalist and accusing the BBC of twisting the story.

Asked about criticism of the crackdown, Zhao defended China’s anti-virus strategy and said the public’s legal rights were protected by law.

The government is trying to “provide maximum protection to people’s lives and health while minimising the COVID impact on social and economic development,” he said.

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