U.S. officials believe the protests that erupted in a number of Chinese cities over the weekend are unlikely to spread or spark a wider movement against Beijing’s authoritarian rulers, according to U.S. government communications obtained by POLITICO.
The communications, from Tuesday, describe the protests — in which thousands have gone into the streets to challenge China’s “zero-Covid” lockdowns — as disparate, unorganized and largely leaderless. That makes it unlikely the demonstrations will lead to a larger or more organized movement, the communications say.
In addition, the Chinese Communist Party's large-scale deployment of police and weaponry — including armored vehicles — is likely part of a calculated response, according to the reporting by U.S. officials. Chinese authorities appear to be trying to intimidate protesters to deter further large-scale demonstrations and the need for a violent crackdown. Still, there is a risk of Chinese police becoming more aggressive if the protests continue, the communications note.
So far, the Biden administration has limited its public comment on the protests to expressions of skepticism about the zero-Covid policy and support for the right of peaceful protest. In a briefing with reporters Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. did not have a “finer sense of insight than what’s already out there in the public sphere.”
However, the communications show the U.S. is gathering on-the-ground reporting and actively assessing the situation in cities across China. The reporting also offers the first detailed glimpse into the administration’s thinking on the protests and the extent to which the U.S. believes they could form the basis of a movement.
The NSC did not respond to a request for comment.
The protests in China started Friday after the delayed response to a deadly fire at an apartment building in the capital of the northwestern Xinjiang region prompted allegations that zero-Covid restrictions had blocked firefighters’ access. Public anger toward the policy — which imposes relentless testing and lockdowns to contain outbreaks — has peaked in recent months and caused some of those at the recent demonstrations to demand that Xi step down. By early Tuesday, police had largely dispersed the crowds.
U.S. officials believe Chinese authorities may institute Covid policy changes to appease protesters, the communications say. Some tweaks to the zero-Covid policy are already underway. Beijing officials said Monday that they will no longer block access to housing compounds where infections are found.
However, law enforcement reprisals against protesters are reportedly already underway. In both Hangzhou and Shanghai, police have shifted from monitoring protesters to detaining them. Police have also erected high barriers on select streets in Shanghai to deter protesters from returning.
“Just in the last 48 hours [there’s been] a very heavy security presence here in Beijing and in other major cities of China,” U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said in a video presentation from Beijing at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs event on Tuesday. “And you’ve seen varying degrees of reactions by the police over the weekend … in some cities a heavy hand and in other cities not so much.”
U.S. officials have also received reports that police have rounded up people and interrogated them about their participation in the demonstrations, according to one section of the communications.
While fears of widespread violence have so far not been realized, Beijing also is likely deploying stealthier, high-tech tools to identify and detain protesters in cities including Beijing, Wuhan, Chengdu and Xi’an, according to the reporting from U.S. officials. That includes mobile phone geolocation tracking and facial recognition technology deployed through China’s massive network of closed-circuit security cameras.
That’s likely just the start of a prolonged campaign by Chinese security forces to identify and punish people who participated in the protests. The Chinese government is refraining from directly commenting on the protests or the police response to them. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Monday denied knowledge of protesters demanding that Xi step down. On Tuesday, Zhao hesitated in answering a question about the protests, pausing at the podium for around a minute before telling the Reuters reporter that his question “did not reflect what actually happened.”
But Xi’s national security and intelligence chief, Chen Wenqing, issued an implicit warning aimed at stifling future protests. Chinese police “will resolutely strike hard against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces, as well as illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order,” Chen said at a meeting on Tuesday.
The Chinese Communist Party aims to throttle protests before they can reach a critical mass that might pose a threat to its rule, according to the communications. That strategy reflects the lessons learned from the massive Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of the summer of 1989 — which ended with the killing of an estimated 10,000 people by heavily armed troops — and those that swept Hong Kong from 2019-2020.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.