Students sent home, police on patrol as China curbs protests

Police cars patrol a street in an area where a message that circulated online called on people to gather for a protest against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Beijing, on Tuesday. (Reuters)
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Updated 29 November 2022

Students sent home, police on patrol as China curbs protests

  • Authorities have eased some controls after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong
  • Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and stepped up surveillance

BEIJING: Chinese universities sent students home and police fanned out in Beijing and Shanghai to prevent more protests Tuesday after crowds angered by severe anti-virus restrictions called for leader Xi Jinping to resign.
This is 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 maintained they would stick to a “zero-COVID” strategy that 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 word of protests Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities that saw crowds rally over the weekend. Those were the most widespread protests since the army crushed the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
In Hong Kong, about a dozen people, mostly from the mainland, protested at a university.
Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students rallied over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong sent students home. The schools said they were being protected from COVID-19, but dispersing them to far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are 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 semester. The school, which is Xi’s alma mater, arranged buses to take them to the train station or airport.
Nine student dorms at Tsinghua were closed Monday after some students positive for COVID-19, according to one who noted the closure would make it hard for crowds to gather. The student gave only his surname, Chen, for fear of retribution from authorities.
Beijing Forestry University also said it would arrange for students to return home. It said its faculty and students all tested negative for the virus.
Universities said classes and final exams would be conducted online.
Authorities hope to “defuse the situation” by clearing out campuses, said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
Depending on how tough a position the government takes, groups might take turns protesting, he said.
Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid drawing attention to the scale of the protests or encouraging others. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were deleted by the ruling party’s vast online censorship apparatus.
There were no announcements about detentions, though reporters saw protesters taken away by police and social media posts said people were in custody or missing.
Police warned some detained protesters against demonstrating again.
In Shanghai, police stopped pedestrians and checked their phones Monday night, according to a witness, possibly looking for apps such as Twitter that are banned in China or images of protests. The witness, who insisted on anonymity for fear of arrest, said he was on his way to a protest but found no crowd there when he arrived.
Images viewed by The Associated Press of photos from a weekend protest showed police shoving people into cars. Some people were also swept up in police raids after demonstrations ended.
One person who lived near the site of a protest in Shanghai was detained Sunday and held until Tuesday morning, according to two friends who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from authorities.
In Beijing, police on Monday visited a resident who attended a protest the previous night, according to a friend who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation. He said the police questioned the resident and warned him not to go to more protests.
On Tuesday, protesters at the University of Hong Kong chanted against virus restrictions and held up sheets of paper with critical slogans. 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.” Chinese authorities often try to discredit domestic critics by saying they work for foreign powers.
China’s “zero-COVID” policy has helped keep case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries, but global health experts have increasingly criticized the methods as unsustainable.
Beijing needs to make its approach “very targeted” to reduce economic disruption, the head of the International Monetary Fund told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.
“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in Berlin. “So that targeting allows to contain the spread of COVID without significant economic costs.”
“Zero COVID” means few Chinese have been exposed to the virus. Meanwhile, elderly vaccination rates lag other countries as seniors decline the shots, and China’s domestically developed vaccines are less effective than those used abroad.
Public tolerance of the onerous restrictions has eroded as some people confined at home said they struggled to get access to food and medicine.
The Chinese Communist Party promised last month to reduce disruptions, 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 Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s.
In a video that was verified by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” Such direct criticism of Xi is unprecedented.
Sympathy protests were held overseas, and foreign governments have called on Beijing for restraint.
“We support the right of people everywhere to peacefully protest, to make known their views, their concerns, their frustrations,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Bucharest, Romania.
Meanwhile, the British government summoned China’s ambassador as a protest over the arrest and beating of a BBC cameraman in Shanghai.
Media freedom “is something very, very much at the heart of the UK’s belief system,” said Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian disputed the British version of events. Zhao said the journalist, Edward Lawrence, failed to identify himself and accused the BBC of twisting the story.
Asked about criticism of the crackdown, Zhao defended Beijing’s anti-virus strategy and said the public’s legal rights were protected by law.
The government is trying to “provide maximum protection to people’s lives and health while minimizing the COVID impact on social and economic development,” he said.
Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 demonstrations who lives in exile, said the protest “symbolizes the beginning of a new era in China ... in which Chinese civil society has decided not to be silent and to confront tyranny.”
But he warned at a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, that authorities were likely to respond with “stronger force to violently suppress protesters.”


One person arrested and one person wounded after knife attack in Brussels

Updated 6 sec ago

One person arrested and one person wounded after knife attack in Brussels

Jan 30 (Reuters) - Belgian police have arrested a person responsible for a knife attack in a Brussels metro station on Monday.
The attack left one person wounded, but police couldn't confirm to Reuters if the person is critically wounded or not. (Reporting by Charlotte Van Campenhout, editing by Marine Strauss)

Indonesian Muslims protest Quran burning in Sweden

Updated 30 January 2023

Indonesian Muslims protest Quran burning in Sweden

JAKARTA: Hundreds of Indonesian Muslims marched to the heavily guarded Swedish Embassy in the country’s capital on Monday to denounce the recent desecration of Islam’s holy book by far-right activists in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Waving white flags bearing the Islamic declaration of faith, more than 300 demonstrators filled a major thoroughfare in downtown Jakarta and trampled and set on fire portraits of Danish anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan along with the flags of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Authorities blocked streets leading to the embassy, where more than 200 police and soldiers were deployed in and around the building that was barricaded with razor wire.
Earlier this month, Paludan received permission from police to stage a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, where on Jan. 21 he burned the Quran. Days later, Edwin Wagensveld, Dutch leader of the far-right Pegida movement in the Netherlands, tore pages out of a copy of the Quran near the Dutch Parliament and stomped on them.
It angered millions of Muslims around the world and triggered protests, including in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Protesters in Jakarta chanted “God is Great” and “Get out, Swedish embassy!”
Indonesian government has strongly condemned the burning of the Quran by Paludan and summoned Swedish Ambassador Marina Berg last week, said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah.
“This act of blasphemy has hurt and tarnished religious tolerance,” the ministry said in a statement on Jan. 22. "Freedom of expression must be exercised in a responsible manner.”
Turkey has accused the government in Stockholm, which has applied jointly with Finland to join NATO, of being too lenient toward groups it deems as terror organizations or existential threats, including Kurdish groups. NATO requires unanimous approval of its existing members to add new ones, but Turkey says it would only agree to admit Sweden if the country met its conditions.
Protest organizer Marwan Batubara told the crowd that Paludan was being aggressively hostile to Islam and called on Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark to punish those who desecrated the Quran and apologize to Muslims.
“It hurt us deeply and we demand that Sweden bring him to court so that such incidents don’t happen again,” he said. “Defending those who insult Islam under freedom of expression will only invite martyrs to defend Islam.”
The Swedish Embassy in Jakarta said in a statement that “the Islamophobic act committed by a far-right extremist in Sweden is strongly rejected by the Swedish government.”
“This act does not in any way reflect the opinions of the Swedish government,” the statement said.


India's top court to consider cases against block on BBC documentary on Modi

Updated 30 January 2023

India's top court to consider cases against block on BBC documentary on Modi

  • At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in 2002 riots in India's Gujarat state
  • The documentary alleges Modi had ordered police to turn a blind eye while he was CM

NEW DELHI: India's Supreme Court will consider petitions next week against a government order blocking the sharing of clips of a BBC documentary that questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership during riots in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat. 

The government has dismissed as a biased "propaganda piece" the film released last week, titled "India: The Modi Question", and blocked the sharing of any clips from it on social media. 

The Supreme Court will take up the petitions next week, Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud said in court on Monday. 

A New Delhi-based lawyer, M L Sharma, opposed the government's move in one of the petitions to the Supreme Court. 

A separate petition by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, journalist N. Ram and opposition politician Mahua Moitra focused on the order to take down social media links to the documentary. 

In a Twitter comment on the second petition, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju said, "This is how they waste the precious time of the Honourable Supreme Court, where thousands of common citizens are waiting and seeking dates for justice." 

Modi, who aims for a third term in elections next year, was chief minister of Gujarat in February 2002, when a suspected Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. 

The incident sparked one of the worst outbreaks of religious bloodshed in independent India. 

In reprisal attacks across the state at least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslim, as crowds roamed the streets for days, targeting the religious minority. But activists put the toll at more than twice that, at about 2,500. 

Modi has denied accusations that he did not do enough to stop the riots. He was exonerated in 2012 following an inquiry overseen by the Supreme Court and a petition questioning his exoneration was dismissed last year. 

The BBC has said the documentary was "rigorously researched" and involved a wide range of voices and opinions, including responses from people in Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. 


WHO says COVID-19 still an international emergency

Updated 30 January 2023

WHO says COVID-19 still an international emergency

  • WHO chief had suggested the emergency phase of the pandemic is not over

GENEVA: Three years to the day after the World Health Organization sounded the highest level of global alert over COVID-19, it said Monday the pandemic remains an international emergency.
The UN health agency’s emergency committee on Covid-19 met last Friday for a 14th time since the start of the crisis.
Following that meeting, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus “concurs with the advice offered by the committee regarding the ongoing COVID-19pandemic and determines that the event continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC),” the organization said in a statement.
Tedros, it said, “acknowledges the committee’s views that the COVID-19 pandemic is probably at a transition point and appreciates the advice of the committee to navigate this transition carefully and mitigate the potential negative consequences.”
Even prior to the meeting, the WHO chief had suggested the emergency phase of the pandemic is not over, pointing to surging numbers of deaths and warning that the global response to the crisis “remains hobbled.”
“As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, we are certainly in a much better position now than we were a year ago, when the omicron wave was at its peak, and more than 70,000 deaths were being reported to WHO each week,” he told the committee at the start of Friday’s meeting.
Tedros said the weekly death rate had dropped below 10,000 in October but had been rising again since the start of December, while the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in China had led to a spike in deaths.
In mid-January, almost 40,000 COVID-19 weekly deaths were reported — more than half of them in China — while the true toll “is certainly much higher,” he said.
The WHO first declared a so-called PHEIC as what was then called the novel coronavirus began to spread outside China on January 30, 2020.
Though declaring a PHEIC is the internationally agreed mechanism for triggering a global response to such outbreaks, it was only after Tedros described the worsening COVID-19situation as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, that many countries realized the danger.
Globally, more than 752 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been reported to the WHO, including more than 6.8 million deaths, though the United Nations’ health agency always stresses that the true numbers are likely much higher.


Bomb kills 61 at mosque inside Peshawar police compound: Hospital

People look for survivors under a collapsed roof, after a suicide blast in a mosque in Peshawar on January 30, 2023. (Reuters)
Updated 22 min 50 sec ago

Bomb kills 61 at mosque inside Peshawar police compound: Hospital

  • Such attacks have increased since Pakistan Taliban called off truce with government last year

PESHAWAR: More than 60 people were killed and dozens of others wounded when an explosion ripped through a mosque inside a compound where the headquarters of the provincial police force are located in Peshawar, a hospital spokesman said said.

Police said up to 350 worshipers were inside the mosque for afternoon prayers when the bomber detonated his explosives.

“It was a big explosion that totally damaged the mosque’s roof but it will be premature to say whether it was a suicide explosion,” Commissioner Peshawar Riaz Mehsud told Arab News. “Security officials are investigating the nature of the blast.”

"We haven't yet confirmed how many policemen are dead and wounded but I think 90 percent casualties are of police personnel because most of those offering prayers in the mosque were policemen," Mehsud added.

Muhammad Ijaz Khan, the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO), said many people, including policemen, were still trapped under the debris.

“We can’t as of yet determined what caused the explosion but it was a security lapse,” Khan said.

Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The group has recently carried out similar attacks, with assaults on the rise since last November when it called off a ceasefire signed with the government in May.

Muhammad Asim, a spokesman for the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), the city’s largest medical facility, told Arab News people were still being pulled out of the rubble and being brought to the hospital, so the death toll could rise.

Ahmad Khan, a police constable who was inside the mosque when the blast occurred, said the roof collapsed after the explosion.

“It was the time for Zuhr (afternoon) prayers,” Khan said. “I was in the second row among worshippers when the blast took place. The roof of the mosque collapsed with many worshippers trapped but I managed to come out with small injuries.”

Akbar Khan, an official at the Edhi charity in Peshawar, estimated that 50 people, including policemen, were still trapped under the debris.

Soon after the blast, the provincial health department declared a state of emergency at the city’s hospitals.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif urged people, especially followers of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz ruling party, to donate blood to those injured in suicide attack.

“Reach Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar, and contribute to saving precious human lives,” he tweeted.