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China is quietly cracking down on mass protests that broke out over the weekend

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

China is cracking down on mass protests that broke out over the weekend.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The protests drew on deep public dissatisfaction with the country's strict COVID controls. A Chinese government official blamed the unrest on, quote, "forces with ulterior motives."

MARTIN: We've got NPR's China correspondent Emily Feng with us. She joins us from Taiwan. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the police are getting involved. What does that response look like?

FENG: Right. They're doing a quiet cleanup of all the demonstrators. Basically, there's been an intense police presence on the ground, and then protesters tell me they're getting phone calls on their private mobile phones from police, asking them where they were the last couple of nights and whether they continue to plan to go to, quote, "illegal protests." And there have been spot arrests over the last day. If you go to sites where there had been previously demonstrations, they're now completely fenced off in Beijing, Shanghai, elsewhere. If you want to go for a walk there at night, you're definitely going to be asked for your ID several times. And people - at least in Beijing, where I used to live, they're stopping random people and checking their phones for apps like Telegram and Instagram, because video and information about the protests had been shared there over the last couple of days.

MARTIN: Wow. So they're clearly feeling the pressure from these demonstrations. Does that mean they are signaling in some way that they might ease up on some of these strict COVID rules?

FENG: They've modified them slightly. So the southern city of Guangzhou said it would reduce some mass testing to conserve resources. They did not mention the demonstrations at all as a reason. The region of Xinjiang, where the protests began last week, said it was going to lift parts of its lockdown because it just didn't have COVID cases. And Beijing said it would no longer barricade buildings where they did discover cases, and they would improve management of testing, but they didn't really offer many other specifics.

In general, the overall direction of China's zero-COVID policies has not changed at all, and there's been no official acknowledgement that these demonstrations even happened over the weekend. All mentions of them are being deleted online. And when officials do mention them, they've been trying to discredit the protesters by claiming they were paid off by hostile countries like the U.S. This is a conspiracy theory with no evidence, but it's frequently trotted out in China whenever there are problems. And over the weekend, some protesters addressed this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Here's one protester shouting, how can we be a foreign force? We can't even access the foreign internet. How can foreign forces communicate with us? It's only domestic forces that are forbidding us from gathering and demonstrating.

MARTIN: Which is a brave thing to say out loud, frankly. So what does this mean? With all this government intervention in these protests, are they going to subside? Are they going to stop now?

FENG: That's what it looks like. It certainly looks like the heavy, heavy policing today is having an effect. There were some brave souls who tried to go out and protest late last night in the southern city of Hangzhou. But within minutes, there were literally more police than protesters, and they started dragging individual demonstrators away. Instead, these protests were actually going international. I've noticed that there are dozens of protests already in American and European cities, often outside Chinese embassies or on college campuses where Chinese students and people are gathering in sympathy with the protests in China. And it's the force - it's these protests outside of China right now that are gaining force because people inside China can't get together.

MARTIN: NPR's China correspondent Emily Feng - Emily, thank you.

FENG: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.