Chinese authorities have begun inquiries into some of the people who gathered at weekend protests against COVID-19 curbs, three people who were at the Beijing demonstrations told Reuters, as police remained out in numbers on the city’s streets.
In one case, a caller identifying as a police officer in the Chinese capital asked the protester to show up at a police station on Tuesday to deliver a written record of their activities on Sunday night.
In another, a student was contacted by their college and asked if they had been in the area where events took place and to provide a written account.
“We are all desperately deleting our chat history,” one Beijing protester who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
“There are just too many police. Police came to check the ID of one of my friends and then took her away. We don’t know why. A few hours later they released her.”
Beijing’s Public Security Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Simmering discontent with COVID prevention policies three years into the pandemic ignited into broader protests in cities thousands of miles apart over the weekend.
Mainland China’s biggest wave of civil disobedience since Xi Jinping took power a decade ago comes as the number of COVID cases hit record highs daily and large parts of several cities face new lockdowns.
COVID in China keeps spreading despite the efforts of most of its 1.4 billion people to prevent transmission by adhering to a zero-COVID policy of eradicating all outbreaks and maintaining tight border controls.
The lockdowns have exacerbated one of the sharpest slowdowns in growth China has suffered in decades, disrupting global supply chains and roiling financial markets.
In Hangzhou, the capital of the eastern province of Zhejiang, videos on social media which Reuters could not independently verify showed hundreds of police occupying a large square on Monday night, preventing people from congregating.
One video showed police, surrounded by a small crowd of people holding smartphones, making an arrest while others tried to pull back the person being detained.
Hangzhou police did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
In Shanghai and Beijing, police were patrolling areas where some groups on the Telegram messaging service had suggested people gather again. The police presence on Monday evening and night ensured no gatherings took place.
“The large number of police, it’s really scary,” said Beijing resident Philip Qin, 22, who witnessed the protests on Sunday.
Residents said police have been asking people passing through those areas for their phones to check if they had virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Telegram app, which has been used by protesters, residents said. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from China’s internet.
A busload of demonstrators was taken away by police during Sunday night protests in Shanghai.
A fire last week in the western city of Urumqi that authorities said killed 10 people appears to have been the spark for the wave of protests in other cities.
Some internet users said COVID lockdown measures hampered the effort to rescue people in the burning building. Officials have denied that.
Although largely focused on COVID curbs, protesters have occasionally vented their frustration with the ruling Communist Party and Xi, who has concentrated power in his hands over the past decade and just recently secured another leadership term.
On Sunday, a large crowd gathered in the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu chanting: “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors.” Anti-Xi slogans were also briefly heard in Shanghai on Sunday.
Xi had taken personal responsibility for leading the “war” against COVID. Officials say the zero-COVID policy has kept the death toll in the world’s most populous country in the thousands, avoiding the millions of deaths elsewhere.
Many analysts say easing the policy could lead to widespread illness and deaths, overwhelming hospitals. A strong push on vaccinating the elderly is required before China could even contemplate re-opening, they say.
In a Tuesday editorial that did not mention the protests, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, urged citizens to “unswervingly implement” zero-COVID policies, which put people’s “lives first,” saying victory would come through “perseverance through thousands of hardships”.
“The harder it is, the more you have to grit your teeth,” it said.