China on Monday dismissed concerns over its controversial zero-Covid policy in the face of unprecedented demonstrations which have spread to Beijing, even as it reported close to 40,000 coronavirus cases and authorities scrambled to contain the fresh surge in infections and protests against the Xi Jinping regime.
The protests, which came nearly a month after President Xi was elected as the ruling party's top leader for a third consecutive term, have spread to Shanghai, Beijing and many parts of the country in the last few days against the stringent policy under which cities and localities are kept under prolonged lockdowns and isolation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian also defended the arrest of a BBC journalist covering the demonstrations in Shanghai, maintaining that the scribe did not present his media credentials.
"What you mentioned does not reflect what has happened," Zhao told a media briefing when asked, given the widespread display of anger and frustration on zero-Covid policy across the country.
"China has been following the dynamic zero-Covid policy and has been making adjustments based on realities on the ground," Zhao said.
He said so far China issued nine versions of pandemic protocols and recently released 20 measures to contain the outbreak.
"We believe that with the leadership of the CPC and the support of the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful," Zhao said.
To another question on protests at home and abroad, calling for an end to the zero-Covid policy, with some calling for Xi to step down, Zhao said, "I just answered your question and I am not aware of what you mentioned."
Under the policy, those who tested positive along with those who came in contact with them were taken away to mass Covid treatment centres, which have caused public resentment.
Nearly 40,000 new cases
China's National Health Commission said 39,452 new cases were reported on Monday, including 36,304 local asymptomatic cases, as authorities scrambled to contain the fresh surge in infections.
For the fifth consecutive day, China has reported close to 4,000 cases in Beijing.
Asked about the calls on social media expressing concern over a fire in an apartment building reportedly under Covid lockdown a few days ago in Urumqi in Xinjiang, which has become a rallying point for protesters, Zhao accused some "forces” with “ulterior motives” behind such campaigns.
He said that the Urumqi city government has already addressed a press conference on this issue.
"On social media, there are forces with ulterior motives that relate this fire to the local Covid-19 response. The city government of Urumqi has made clear the facts and rebutted this information and smears," he said.
"As to concerns about safety you mentioned, I think this is unnecessary. I think for most of us living in China, it is safe and secure," he said.
Zhao also dismissed questions over the detention and assault by police of BBC journalist Ed Lawrence while he was covering protests in Shanghai on Sunday.
BBC journalist’s detention
The BBC in a statement issued in London said "BBC is extremely concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed, while covering the protests in Shanghai".
"He was held for several hours before being released. During his arrest, he was beaten and kicked by the police. This happened while he was working as an accredited journalist," it said.
Asked for his reaction, Zhao said, "we have noted that BBC has issued a statement” which according to him "does not reflect what actually happened".
"Based on what we learnt from authorities in Shanghai, the journalist did not identify himself as a journalist and did not voluntarily present credentials. Local law enforcement officials were persuading people to leave. Those who did not were ushered away," he said.
While China welcomed foreign journalists to cover the events, "foreign journalists need to consciously follow Chinese laws and regulations."
Significantly, all the questions related to the Covid protests have been omitted from the official transcript of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Protests in Beijing
The protests, which broke out in the eastern metropolis of Shanghai during the weekend, have spread to Beijing, where hundreds of people converged on Sunday evening near Liangmahe river in the central city.
Crowds carrying lighted candles in memory of those killed in the fire at an apartment block reported under Covid-19 lockdown in Urumqi in Xinjiang shouted slogans against the arbitrary lockdowns by the government to curb the spread of the virus and in solidarity with the weekend protests in Shanghai.
Several diplomats and foreigners watched the protests as they took place close to the diplomatic residential compound in Beijing.
Eyewitness accounts said the protests went on for several hours and the police detained a number of people.
China virus protests hit Hong Kong after mainland ralliesRallies against China's strict anti-virus measures spread to several cities over the weekend, and authorities eased some regulations to quell public anger
Protesters in Shanghai on Saturday and Sunday called on President Xi and the ruling Communist Party to step down, besides opposing the lockdowns and forcible eviction of people into coronavirus medical shelters.
Students' protests also broke out at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing and Communication University in Nanjing.
Photos and videos posted online showed students holding vigils for the Urumqi fire victims and launching protests at universities in Beijing and Nanjing.
In the latest notice, Tsinghua University has informed students that they can go home if they wish ahead of the January spring festival holidays.
China reports sharp spike in Covid-19 cases amid renewed protests against Xi Jinping, lockdownsIn recent weeks, protests have erupted in Guangdong, Zhengzhou, Lhasa, the provincial capital of Tibet and other cities
In recent weeks, protests have erupted in Guangdong, Zhengzhou, Lhasa, the provincial capital of Tibet, and other cities, with participants asking for an end to prolonged lockdowns and Covid tests, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on Monday.
The People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, Sunday vowed in a front-page commentary to unwaveringly stick with the existing controls to curb the spread of Covid-19, which first broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and then became a pandemic.
In remarks that appeared to aim at widespread doubts and dissatisfaction, it again touted China's self-claimed victory in controlling the pandemic so far and called on party cadres at all levels to resolutely overcome misunderstandings, slackness, and war weariness, the Post reported.
According to the latest estimates, about 412 million people were affected by lockdown measures in China, up from 340 million the week before, according to the Japanese brokerage firm Nomura.
It added that more than one-fifth of China's total GDP-generating sectors across the country are currently under lockdown.