Chinese universities have sent students home and police fanned out in Beijing and Shanghai to prevent more protests after crowds angered by anti-Covid restrictions called for President Xi Jinping to resign in the biggest show of public dissent in decades.
Authorities have eased some controls after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong — but showed no sign of backing off their larger zero-Covid strategy which has confined millions of people to their homes for months at a time.
Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and stepped up surveillance.
With police out in force, there was no sign of protests on Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities that saw crowds rally over the weekend.
The widespread demonstrations were unprecedented since the army crushed the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
A far smaller group gathered at a university in Hong Kong to protest over restrictions.
Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students rallied over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong said they were protecting students from Covid-19 by sending them home.
Dispersing them to far-flung home towns also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are especially wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism including the Tiananmen protests.
On Sunday, Tsinghua students were told they could go home early for the term and that the university would arrange buses to take them to the railway station or airport.
Nine student dormitories at Tsinghua were closed on Monday after some students positive for Covid-19, according to one who noted the closure would make it hard for crowds to gather.
Beijing Forestry University also said it would arrange for students to return home. It said its faculty and students had all tested negative for the virus.
Universities said classes and final exams will be conducted online.
Many people are nervous after police detained some protesters and warned them against demonstrating again.
In Shanghai, officers stopped pedestrians and checked their phones on Monday night, according to a witness, possibly looking for apps such as Twitter that are banned in China or images of protests.
Photos from a weekend protest showed police shoving people into their cars. Some were also swept up in raids after demonstrations ended.
On Tuesday, about a dozen people gathered at the University of Hong Kong, chanting against virus restrictions and holding up sheets of paper with critical slogans.
Most were from the mainland, which has a separate legal system from the Chinese territory, and some spectators joined in their chants.
The protesters held signs that read “Say no to Covid panic” and “No dictatorship but democracy”.
One chanted “We’re not foreign forces but your classmates” – a reference to the fact that Chinese authorities often accuse foreign powers of fomenting dissent.
China’s zero-Covid policy has helped keep case numbers lower than in the US and other major countries, but global health experts have increasingly criticised the methods as unsustainable.
The policy means few Chinese have been exposed to the virus, and elderly vaccination rates lag other countries as seniors decline the jabs, and China’s domestically developed vaccines are less effective than those used abroad.
Public tolerance of the restrictions has eroded as people in some areas have been confined at home for up to four months and struggled to get access to food and medicine.
The Chinese Communist Party promised last month to reduce disruption by changing quarantine and other rules, but a spike in infections has prompted cities to tighten controls.
The protests over the weekend were sparked by anger over the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire in China’s far west last week that prompted angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by anti-virus controls.
Most protesters over the weekend complained about excessive restrictions, but some turned their anger at Mr Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s.
In a video verified by the Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted: “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!”
Sympathy protests were held overseas, and foreign governments have called on Beijing for restraint.
On Tuesday, the head of the International Monetary Fund said it is time for China to move away from massive lockdowns and towards a more targeted approach to Covid-19.
Kristalina Georgieva urged a “recalibration” of the zero-Covid approach “because of the impact it has on both people and on the economy”.
“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns, being very targeted in restrictions,” she said in Berlin. “So that targeting allows to contain the spread of Covid without significant economic costs.”
Ms Georgieva also urged China to look at vaccination policies and focus on vaccinating the “most vulnerable people”.