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China warns it will crack down on 'hostile forces' as protests simmer

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China's top security official called for law enforcement to clamp down on "hostile forces" and to maintain stability after protests broke out across the country over strict COVID-19 restrictions. Photo by Mark R. Cristino/ EPA-EFE
China's top security official called for law enforcement to clamp down on "hostile forces" and to maintain stability after protests broke out across the country over strict COVID-19 restrictions. Photo by Mark R. Cristino/ EPA-EFE

Nov. 30 (UPI) -- China's top security officials said that the government must "resolutely crack down" on "hostile forces" as police came out in large numbers to smother protests that broke out across the country over President Xi Jinping's draconian COVID-19 policies.

The remarks were made at a meeting of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission helmed by China's domestic security chief Chen Wenqing, state news agency Xinhua reported Tuesday evening.

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"We must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law [and] resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order," the commission said.

The officials called for law enforcement bodies to "effectively maintain overall social stability," but did not specifically mention the thousands of protesters who took to the streets over the weekend in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wuhan.

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Anger over Xi's zero-COVID policy of strict lockdowns, forced testing and digital tracking boiled over after a fire on Thursday in Urumqi, capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, killed 10 people who had been quarantined.

The blaze and deaths sparked accusations that China's lockdowns, which had been in place in much of Xinjiang for more than three months, hampered rescue efforts.

Calls for Xi and the ruling Communist Party to step down were mixed into protests at various locations, while many protesters held up blank sheets of paper to symbolize the heavy-handed censorship that the government imposes to stifle any criticism.

RELATED China vows to increase COVID-19 vaccinations amid protests

The BBC reported a heavy police presence in Beijing and Shanghai on Tuesday and Wednesday that appeared to curb the protests, while reports circulated on social media that authorities were checking people's phones for banned apps such as Twitter and Telegram.

Videos on social media also showed fresh conflicts breaking out late Tuesday night, including in the southern megacity of Guangzhou, where dozens of protesters clashed with riot police. UPI is not able to independently verify the video.

China is in the midst of its largest wave of COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began three years ago. The country reported 37,828 cases on Tuesday, down slightly from a record high of more than 40,000 the day before.

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Health officials have not reversed course on the government's zero-COVID policies, but on Tuesday called for efforts to ramp up vaccinations and reduce the "inconvenience" to citizens.

"Lockdown management should be imposed and eased quickly to reduce the inconvenience caused to the public due to the epidemic," Mi Feng, spokesman for China's National Health Commission, said at a press conference.

"It is necessary to continue to rectify the situation layer by layer, and respond to and solve the reasonable demands of the public in a timely manner," he said.

U.S. Ambassador to China Nicolas Burns said on Tuesday that Chinese people "have a right to protest peacefully."

"That right should not be hindered with and it shouldn't be interfered with, Burns said during an online discussion hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

"[The protest movement is] obviously a very important event for the people of China and we're watching it of course with great care and great attention," he added.

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