NEW DELHI - China's rulers are accusing 'hostile forces,' including foreigners, of inciting street demonstrations in more than three dozen Chinese cities and many more universities in the biggest domestic political challenge for Beijing since 1989's Tiananmen Square protests.
At stake is the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party as protesters question its management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has used repressive methods such as repetitive mass testing, quarantines, and lockdowns resulting in large-scale unemployment and economic loss.
Jolted, the government is handling the new situation cautiously. Though several instances of police violence have taken place, state repression has not reached the magnitude initially feared. The government is depending more on propaganda to evoke nationalistic sentiments and using politically divisive methods to address some of the problems highlighted by protesters, according to analysts.
"We must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law, resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order and effectively maintain overall social stability,' the CCP's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC) said in a statement released Tuesday.
Bucknell University political scientist Zhiqun Zhu said the statement is a direct reference to foreign forces attempting to fan the flames of political unrest.
"The definitions of 'infiltration' and 'sabotage activities' are very broad. Even a foreign journalist reporting on site is viewed with suspicion,' Zhu told VOA. 'Social media postings and commentaries on the protests are also considered adding fuel to the fire.
"In this context, foreigners offering critical comments about the protests or making contacts with protesters are easily blamed for instigating, shaping and guiding the demonstrations," he said.
By blaming unrest on foreigners and foreign governments, analysts said, Beijing can whip up nationalist sentiments that weaken the protest movement.
An estimated 43 protests across 22 Chinese cities unfolded between Saturday and Monday, according to the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and some analysts say the protests have since spread to more cities and towns.
China's leadership is trying to meet some protest demands to lift COVID-19 requirements such as lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines, and several locked-down areas and restaurants in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou - a manufacturing hub hit hard by the latest COVID-19 outbreaks - reopened Wednesday.
"I believe that in the next few days most of the locked-down areas across China will be reopened," Hu Xijin, former editor in chief of the Global Times and a strong Communist Party voice, said in a video statement on the paper's website.
Hu indicated this would likely be done to maintain social stability. "As lockdowns are coming to an end, the biggest factor for public discontent will be eliminated. It will have a very positive effect on maintaining social stability," he said.
Instead of using batons to keep protesters in line - a normal strategy for Chinese riot officers - police are busy identifying possible rebels and troublemakers and checking phones to find out whether they have been circulating protest images on virtual private networks and accessing banned sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Tuesday's statement by CPLAC said agency officials had emphasized that 'political and legal organs must take effective measures to ... resolutely safeguard national security and social stability.'
Will protests persist?
Analysts differ on whether the protests - which are demanding democratic freedoms and an end to censorship - are likely to continue.
"It is unlikely that there will be more large-scale protests in the near future," Zhu said. "New policies are being rolled out to loosen COVID-19 controls. It is also expected that the 'zero-COVID' policy will be replaced by more scientific and pragmatic measures," he said.
"More protests will emerge in different parts of China in the coming days, although the authorities may try to suppress them,' said Jagannath Panda, head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific affairs at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Sweden. 'The Communist Party's image has taken a severe beating because of widespread unemployment and the government's repression."
Salih Hudayar, an activist leader of the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang, said China might even use the military to suppress the protest movement. The suppression of Uyghurs has drawn the attention of human rights activists and several foreign governments.
"The Chinese government has already started to crack down on the protests by intimidating protesters and arresting many of them," said Hudayar, prime minister of the self-styled East Turkistan Government in Exile.
"Because there is not any meaningful political support from the international community, it's highly likely that the Chinese government will use military force to suppress the protests in the coming weeks, if not days," he said.