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China puts surveillance state to work against widespread protests over COVID curbs and Beijing leadership

BEIJING — Police fanned out across China’s big cities Tuesday in an effort to prevent fresh protests, as security services harnessed the country’s pervasive surveillance system to hunt down participants in mass demonstrations calling for an end to strict COVID curbs and criticizing national leaders.

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Meanwhile, China’s central public health authorities urged local governments to avoid unnecessary and lengthy lockdowns — something that has sparked public ire after nearly three years of tough pandemic-control measures. Authorities also modulated their language about the dangers posed by the virus, saying the now-prevalent Omicron variant causes less serious disease.

The National Health Commission appeared to deliver the government’s first acknowledgment of the protests, if a subtle one, at a news briefing in Beijing. “The problems recently reflected by the masses are not primarily about pandemic prevention and control per se,” said Chen Youquan, a senior official with the NHC. Instead, he said, people are dissatisfied by poor implementation of controls at the local level.

Other parts of China’s central government have avoided acknowledging the demonstrations. Asked repeatedly about the protests at Foreign Ministry briefings on Monday and Tuesday, spokesman Zhao Lijian has said only that the rights of Chinese citizens must be exercised within the country’s laws and defended the Covid policies as “scientific, correct and effective.”

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The protests first appeared over the weekend in several big cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, as accumulated frustration over the country’s zero-tolerance policies boiled over into a rare display of open defiance. The demonstrations followed a deadly fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of the western region of Xinjiang. Some residents have suggested that pandemic restrictions contributed to delays in putting out a fire that killed 10 people.

An expanded version of this report appears at WSJ.com.

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