China's top security body called for a "crackdown" against "hostile forces" on Tuesday, after a weekend of protests in major cities opposing Covid lockdowns and demanding greater political freedoms.
The stark warning came after security services were out in force across China following demonstrations not seen in decades, as anger over unrelenting lockdowns fuelled deep-rooted frustration with the political system.
A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, was the catalyst for the outrage, with protesters taking to the streets in cities around China.
The demonstrators said Covid-19 restrictions were to blame for hampering rescue efforts in Urumqi, claims the government swiftly denied.
China is the world's last major economy still wedded to a zero-Covid policy, which compels local governments to impose snap lockdowns and quarantine orders, and limit freedom of movement in response to minor outbreaks.
Anger over the lockdowns has widened to calls for political change, with protesters holding up blank sheets of paper to symbolise the pervasive censorship to which the world's most populous country is subjected.
On Tuesday, the ruling Communist Party's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission called for a "crackdown" on what it described as "hostile forces" -- a possible warning to the protesters, which the readout published in state news agency Xinhua did not mention directly.
The body -- which oversees all domestic law enforcement in China -- also agreed at its meeting that it was time to "crack down on illegal criminal acts that disrupt social order" as well as "safeguard overall social stability."
The warning came after a heavy police presence across cities on Monday and Tuesday appeared to have quelled protests for the time being.
In another sign of the government's zero-tolerance of dissent, people who had attended weekend rallies in the Chinese capital told AFP on Monday they had received phone calls from law enforcement officers demanding information about their movements.
'Liberty or death'
On Tuesday hundreds of officers appeared to have been drawn back from the streets of a rain-drenched Shanghai, where weekend protests had seen bold calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping, an AFP reporter said.
A broad effort by police to stop passersby taking pictures of the site of the protest also appeared to have been tapered down, the reporter added, with one officer telling AFP that it "depends on the nature of the photo" but that there was no blanket ban in place.
In Beijing, AFP reporters saw a few marked and unmarked police vehicles but no sign of protesters at an intersection near the Asian Games Village, where a demonstration had been planned for Tuesday night.
Freezing temperatures of minus nine degrees Celsius (15.8 degrees Fahrenheit) likely also kept protesters away.
Some rallies did go ahead elsewhere on Monday and Tuesday, however.
At Hong Kong's oldest university, over a dozen people led the crowd Tuesday in chanting slogans such as "give me liberty or give me death".
"We are not foreign forces, we are Chinese citizens. China should have different voices," one woman shouted, while another held a placard mourning victims of the Urumqi fire.
In Hangzhou, just over 170 kilometres (105 miles) southwest of Shanghai, there was heavy security and sporadic protests in the city's downtown on Monday night.
"The atmosphere was disorderly. There were few people and we were separated. There were lots of police, it was chaos," she said.
'Many died in vain'
China's strict control of information and continued travel curbs have made verifying protester numbers across the vast country challenging.
But the widespread rallies seen over the weekend are exceptionally rare in China, with authorities harshly clamping down on all opposition to the central government.
US President Joe Biden is monitoring the unrest, the White House said Monday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that Washington's position was "the same everywhere", and that was to "support the right of people everywhere, to peacefully protest to make known their views, their concerns, and their frustrations".
Solidarity protests have meanwhile mushroomed around the world.
"Officials are borrowing the pretext of Covid, but using excessively strict lockdowns to control China's population," said one 21-year-old Chinese protester in Washington, who gave only his surname, Chen.
"They disregarded human lives and caused many to die in vain," he told AFP.
While China's leaders are committed to zero-Covid, there have been some signs that central authorities may be seeking a path out of the rigid policy.
China's National Health Commission (NHC) announced on Tuesday a renewed effort to expand low vaccination rates among the elderly -- long seen as a key obstacle to relaxing the measures.
Many fear that opening the country up while swaths of the population remain not fully immunised could overwhelm China's healthcare system and cause more than a million deaths.
Just 65.8 percent of people over 80 are fully vaccinated, NHC officials told a news conference.
China has also not yet approved mRNA vaccines, which are proven to be more effective, for public use.
The NHC also said local efforts "inconsistent with national policies" had caused a "great impact on people's work and life", and warned that "those who cause serious consequences will be held accountable in accordance with laws and regulation".
However, it did not suggest a change in policy was imminent.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)