China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother mass protests that swept the country, with police patrolling streets, checking cell phones and even calling some demonstrators to warn them against a repeat.
In major cities on Monday and Tuesday, police flooded the sites of protests that took place over the weekend, when thousands gathered to vent their anger over the country’s tough zero-Covid policy – some calling for greater democracy and freedom in an extraordinary show of dissent against Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The heavy police presence has discouraged protesters from gathering since, while authorities in some cities have adopted surveillance tactics used in the far western region of Xinjiang to intimidate those who demonstrated at the weekend.
In what appears to be the first official response – albeit veiled – to the protests, China’s domestic security chief vowed at a meeting Tuesday to “effectively maintain overall social stability.”
Without mentioning the demonstrations, Chen Wenqing urged law enforcement officials to “resolutely strike hard against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces, as well as illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order,” the state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
The tough language may signal a heavy-handed crackdown ahead. While protests over local grievances do occur in China, the current wave of demonstrations is the most widespread since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989. The political defiance is also unprecedented, with some protesters openly calling for Xi, the country’s most powerful and authoritarian leader in decades, to step down.
Some of the boldest protests took place in Shanghai, where crowds called for Xi’s removal two nights in a row. The sidewalks of Urumqi Road – the main protest site – have been completely blocked by tall barricades, making it virtually impossible for crowds to congregate.
Ten minutes’ drive away, dozens of police officers patrolled the People’s Square – a large plaza at the heart of the city where some residents had planned to gather with white paper and candles on Monday evening. Police also waited inside a subway station there, closing off all but one exit, according to a protester at the scene.
CNN is not naming any of the protesters in this story to protect them from reprisals.
The protester said he saw police checking the cell phones of passersby, and asking them if they had installed virtual private networks (VPNs) that can be used to circumvent China’s internet firewall, or apps such as Twitter and Telegram, which though banned in the country have been used by protesters.
“There were also police dogs. The whole atmosphere was chilling,” the protester said.
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Protesters later decided to move their planned demonstration to another location, but by the time they arrived, the security presence had already been stepped up there, the protester said.
“There were too many police and we had to cancel,” he said.
On Tuesday, a widely circulated video appears to show police officers checking passengers’ mobile phones on a Shanghai subway train.
Another Shanghai protester told CNN they were among “around 80 to 110” people detained by police on Saturday night, adding they were released 24 hours later.
CNN cannot independently verify the number of protesters detained and it is unclear how many people, if any, remain in custody.
The protester said the detainees had their phones confiscated on board a bus that took them to a police station, where officers collected their fingerprints and retina patterns.
According to the protester, police told those detained they had been used by “ill-intentioned people who want to start a color revolution,” pointing to nationwide protests breaking out on the same day as evidence of that.
The protester said police returned their phone and camera upon their release, but officers had deleted the photo album and removed the WeChat social media app.
In Beijing, police vehicles, many parked with their lights flashing, lined eerily quiet streets on Monday morning throughout parts of the capital, including near Liangmaqiao in the city’s central Chaoyang district, where a large crowd of protesters had gathered Sunday night.
The demonstration, which saw hundreds marching down the city’s Third Ring Road, ended peacefully in the early hours of Monday under the close watch of lines of police officers.
But some protesters have since received phone calls from the police inquiring about their participation.
One demonstrator said she received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a local police officer, asking her whether she was at the protest and what she saw there. She was also told that if she had any discontent with authorities, she should complain to the police, instead of taking part in “illegal activities” such as the protest.
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“That night, the police mostly adopted a calm approach when dealing with us. But the Communist Party is very good at meting out punishment afterward,” the demonstrator told CNN.
She said she did not wear a face mask during the demonstration. “I don’t think Omicron is that scary,” she said. But her friends who wore masks to the protest also received calls from the police, she added.
Still, the protester remained defiant. “It is our legitimate right (to protest), because the constitution stipulates that we have freedom of speech and freedom of congregation,” she said.
Another protester, who has not heard from the police, told CNN that concern she could be the next to be called upon weighs heavily on her mind.
“I can only seek consolation by telling myself that there were so many of us who took part in the protest, they can’t put a thousand people in jail,” she said.
Meanwhile, some universities in Beijing have arranged transportation for students to return home early for winter break and take classes online, citing an effort to reduce Covid risks for students taking public transportation.
But the arrangement also conveniently discourages students from gathering, following demonstrations on a series of campuses over the weekend, including the prestigious Tsinghua University where hundreds of students shouted for “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”
Given the long history of student-led movements in modern China, authorities are particularly concerned about political rallies on university campuses.
Beijing’s universities have been the source of demonstrations which kicked off the May Fourth Movement in 1919, to which the Chinese Communist Party traces its roots, as well as the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which were brutally crushed by the Chinese military.
CNN’s Beijing bureau, Wayne Chang, Yong Xiong, Xiaofei Xu and Sophie Jeong contributed reporting.