The US envoy to China has urged Xi Jinping’s administration not to interfere with peaceful demonstrations just as a Communist party security chief warned against “hostile” forces.

China has been shaken by rare political protests across more than 20 cities as vigils for a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which was partly blamed on coronavirus restrictions, evolved into demonstrations against Xi’s zero-Covid policy and state censorship.

“We believe that Chinese people have a right to protest peacefully, they have a right to make their views known, they have a right to be heard,” Ambassador Nicholas Burns said during a video call from Beijing with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Wednesday.

“That’s a fundamental right around the world — it should be — and that right should not be hindered with, and it shouldn’t be interfered with,” he said.

Chinese officials have barely referred to the protests, most of which appeared to have been stamped out by Monday. However, in a speech reported by state media on Tuesday evening, Chen Wenqing, head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, said the government had to resolve disputes “in a timely manner” while maintaining order.

“[We] must resolutely crack down on the infiltration and sabotage activities of hostile forces as well as illegal and criminal activities that disturb social order,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chen as saying. “Social stability must be ensured.”

Since the Urumqi fire last week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has tracked more than 40 public protests across 22 Chinese cities, including four on Monday.

Experts have warned of brutal reprisals for an unknown number of people detained over the weekend in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu. China’s criminal conviction rate is 99 per cent, and the state is notorious for quashing dissent.

Ambassador Burns noted a “very heavy security presence here in Beijing and in the major cities of China”.

The pandemic, Burns added, has “really shut down normal life” and has curtailed normal diplomatic activity, including visits to check on the health and rights of Americans detained in the country.

“We have quite a number of Americans in prisons in China . . . we haven’t been able to get into see most of the American prisoners here for the last three years,” he said.

China’s health authorities on Tuesday blamed local governments for their handling of coronavirus outbreaks as Beijing distanced itself from the crisis and pledged to boost vaccination rates among the elderly.

There were more mixed signals on Wednesday as local officials in some areas tried to ease lockdowns while others ramped up restrictions in response to China’s worst wave of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began nearly three years ago.

In Zhengzhou, the eastern city where the world’s biggest iPhone factory is located, local officials lifted citywide lockdowns before hours later adding new restrictions across dozens of “high-risk” areas.

State-affiliated media in Beijing published in-depth accounts of people’s experiences with a Covid-19 infection, a fledgling step toward normalising the virus after three years of focusing on its dangers. However, officials also warned that the healthcare system was straining amid a surge in cases, with the capital’s centralised quarantine capacity three-quarters full.

In the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, business owners said that tensions continued with local officials over restrictions on movement and additional fees charged for shipping goods out of locked-down areas.

China reported 36,683 new locally transmitted cases on Wednesday, down slightly from the previous day’s total but still well above peak daily caseloads reported during a big outbreak in April. The highest caseloads were reported in Chongqing and Guangdong province, with about 8,000 new cases each.

Additional reporting by William Langley



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