After China experienced its boldest and most widespread protests in decades, defying Xi Jinping, a Communist Party leader who prizes his reputation for ironclad authority, his security apparatus is scrambling to reassert control.
Public security personnel and vehicles have blanketed potential protest sites. Police officers are searching some residents’ phones for prohibited apps. Officials are going to the homes of would-be protesters to warn them against illegal activities and are taking some away for questioning. Censors are scrubbing protest symbols and slogans from social media.
The campaign to quash the protests on multiple fronts draws on the party’s decades-old toolkit of repression and surveillance, which Mr. Xi has upgraded in pursuit of unshakable dominance. He has expanded the police forces, promoted loyal security leaders into key positions and declared that “political security” — for him and for the party — must be the bedrock of national security.
Yet even as Mr. Xi rolls out the police, he is projecting an unruffled appearance of business as usual.
He has stayed silent about the rare open challenge to his rule that erupted in the protests, including calls for him to step down. He appears to be wagering that by outwardly ignoring the demonstrations, he can sap their momentum while the security services move in and the party’s army of online loyalists try to discredit protesters as tools of American-led subversion.
“They’re saying as little as possible for as long as possible,” said William Hurst, a professor at the University of Cambridge who studies politics and protest in China. “If they speak, it could inflame the situation, so it’s better to sit back and pretend nothing is happening.”
On Tuesday, the People’s Daily, the party’s main newspaper, featured Mr. Xi’s talks with the visiting Mongolian president and a front-page celebration of Mr. Xi’s decade in power, but not a word about the protests, China’s most widespread since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989.
Still, there seems no doubt that inside the guarded seclusion of the party’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, Mr. Xi and his advisers have been monitoring the unrest and plotting a response. Since the protests of 1989, Chinese leaders have fixated on the dangers of anti-government social movements, determined to nip them in the bud and avoid the trauma of another bloody crackdown.
Even so, the protests that broke out in parts of Shanghai, Beijing and other Chinese cities over the weekend appeared to catch leaders off guard.
The collective public anger first welled up in Urumqi, a city in western China where at least 10 people died in an apartment fire last week. Many people have said, despite official denials, that the deaths were caused by pandemic restrictions that prevented residents from leaving their apartment block. Protests over the tragedy escalated into wider denunciations of China’s pandemic policies, as well as calls from some for democracy, a free press and other ideals anathema to the country’s authoritarian rulers.
This week, China’s security forces have regrouped, making new demonstrations much more difficult and risky.
“I am pretty sure that the security apparatus will get this under control fairly quickly,” said H. Christoph Steinhardt, a scholar at the University of Vienna who studies patterns of protest in China. “I guess they will begin with identifying ringleaders and then leaning on them, combined with preventive policing in public areas.”
In Hangzhou, a prosperous city about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, the police broke up an attempted demonstration on Monday night, shouting at passers-by and dragging away one woman who was screaming. Dozens of people also confronted officers who had detained someone, chanting “release them.”
In the southern city of Guangzhou, a hundred or so police officers wearing helmets and white protective clothing to possibly ward off Covid banged their clubs on their riot shields as they strode through a street, warning people not to hang around.
Officers across China have been visiting protesters’ homes or stopping possible ones on the street. They check their phones for apps banned in China, delete pictures of demonstrations and warn people not to take to the streets again.
“When the police came to my door, I had to delete my text records,” said a Beijing resident who joined a protest vigil near the Liangma River on Sunday night. She asked that only her surname, Chen, be used, citing fear of police reprisals.
Ms. Chen said she was motivated by grief and frustration with the stringent “zero Covid” policies that have been enforced for nearly three years, including citywide lockdowns and constant Covid tests.
“I really didn’t have any specific slogans and demands,” she said. “It was more about the pent-up pain of so many years.”
Officials appear to be trying to quietly address the most common of grievances about China’s Covid restrictions, which have disrupted life, schooling and business.
Many residents have complained about a 20-point set of rules issued by the government on Nov. 11, which at first seemed to promise an easing in pandemic restrictions. However, it has made little effect on the ground, where local officials are under enormous pressure to stifle Covid outbreaks.
Since the protests over the weekend, local governments across China have said that they will stop residents from being locked in their homes any longer than necessary to prevent expanding outbreaks. On Tuesday, an article from Xinhua, the main state news agency, urged officials to show compassion to frustrated residents.
“All areas and departments must be more patient in relieving the anxieties of the public,” the article said. “The fight against the pandemic is complex, arduous and repetitive, and we must listen to the sincere voice of the public.”
Avoiding any direct mention of the protests by Chinese leaders or in state media is likely a deliberate strategy to try to downplay their significance. In 1989, the students who occupied Tiananmen Square galvanized in fury after an editorial in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, condemned them as being infiltrated by agents of turmoil. The unrest this time has not reached that scale, and officials appear to have learned their lesson.
“The moment that the central leadership takes an official line, they are dignifying the protests with an official response and admitting that they must be reckoned with, which gives them a status that they would rather deny them,” Prof. Hurst of Cambridge University said.
In Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, the police have bundled away some protesters. Some have been released after a couple of days in detention. Particular attention has been paid to university students. At Tsinghua University, a prestigious school in Beijing, shouts rang out from a crowd of hundreds of students for “democracy and rule of law” and “freedom of expression” in what was likely the boldest campus protest.
Tsinghua’s administrators said Sunday that students could leave early for their winter break and offered free train or air travel, a step that may have been intended to defuse fresh protests.
In China, such a response is considered restrained. But that may not last, and it does not mean that the Communist Party authorities will treat all protesters with leniency. Instead of speaking out directly, the party has allowed loyalists on social media to depict the protesters as pawns, witting or unwitting, of Western efforts to destabilize China and discredit its “zero Covid” policies.
Since Monday, a growing chorus of these online commentators have tied the protests to “color revolution,” a term borrowed from Russia to describe purported Western-backed plots to sow insurrection in rival states. Some have claimed the protesters are acolytes of those who shook Hong Kong in 2019, prompting Mr. Xi to impose a national security law there and a sweeping crackdown on anti-government activists.
“Their style in stirring up trouble is the typical color revolution way,” said one commentary about the weekend protests that spread on unofficial Chinese websites and social media. Protest leaders, it said, “were using their worst malice to agitate members of the public who don’t understand their true nature — especially university students and intellectuals whose heads are stuffed with Western ideas — to join in.”
In previous years, the authorities’ intimidation and the heavy police presence would likely have been enough to douse any incipient protest movement. This time, some protesters are vowing to keep pressing the Chinese government. On social media groups operating beyond China’s censorship firewall, they have swapped ideas for moving around in smaller clusters, using multiple phones, and figuring out how to track and share information about the movements of police.
But Mr. Xi’s security options are far from exhausted. China has about 2 million regular police officers — by some measures, relatively few for its 1.4 billion people — but also a million or more People’s Armed Police troops trained in suppressing unrest, as well as legions of security guards and auxiliary police officers. Ultimately, there is also the Chinese military. And as in the crackdown in Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities may make more arrests after the tumult subsides.
Edward Luo, a 23-year old who watched the protest in Shanghai on Sunday, said he was a student in Hong Kong during the 2019 protests and was worried that the young demonstrators in Shanghai did not grasp the risks they faced.
“I think that some people were unafraid, and there were some students who maybe don’t understand how much pressure this state can pile on them,” he said. “Like a newborn calf that isn’t afraid of a tiger.”