Washington - In one of several viral videos on social media, demonstrators in Beijing are seen ridiculing suggestions that "foreign forces" are to blame for protests sweeping China against the government's zero-COVID policy.
"Please, may I ask: did 'foreign forces' set the fire in Xinjiang?" one protester asks in reference to an apartment fire that killed at least 10 people amid reports they had been locked inside because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"Did the bus in Guizhou get overturned by 'foreign forces?'" the protester continues, referring to an incident in September in which 27 people died while being transported to a quarantine center.
The video begins with an unidentified young man in a facemask addressing participants at an evening protest through a bullhorn. "I just got word that we need everyone to pay attention: right here, right now, among this crowd, there are anti-China forces from abroad," the man says.
The claim is quickly rejected by people in the crowd, many of them unmasked, who hurl back a stream of disdainful remarks.
"Were you referring to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin by 'foreign forces?'" one shouts back, referring to the ideological founders and Soviet practitioners of communism.
Another demonstrator, clad in a puffy white winter jacket, asks the crowd: "Did we all decide to come out and gather here because foreign forces urged us to do so?"
"No!" comes the resounding answer from the crowd.
The man continues: "We can't even access the worldwide net [that exists] outside of China! How can you say we have anything to do with foreign forces? How could foreign forces even get in touch and communicate with us?"
Another protester shouts: ""There's only 'domestic forces' that are banning us from gathering together!"
The man in the white jacket shouts again: "At present, are we allowed to travel abroad, or access foreign websites?"
"We're allowed none of this," the crowd replies.
"All we want is freedom," shouts another.
Outside of China, the video has also been remarked upon by analysts who study the country and its political developments. "Brilliant deconstruction of nationalist narrative," remarked Florent Villard of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in a Twitter posting.
"Criticizing the mythology of so-called 'foreign forces,' Beijing students reminded us that [Chinese government] ideological foundations are intimately linked with western/global intellectual history," he wrote.
In response to VOA's request for comment on the Chinese protests, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of the Western state of Oregon, and Congressman James McGovern from Massachusetts, chair and co-chair, respectively, of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, issued the following statement:
"The people of China have the fundamental rights under international law to freedom of expression and of assembly. The Chinese government is obligated to respect them. The protesters in China are sending very important messages. The Chinese government should listen."
Beijing running out of words?
Meanwhile, in contrast with the loud protests across China, a leading government spokesperson was seemingly at a loss for words on Tuesday.
At a live televised news conference, a Reuters reporter politely asked Zhao Lijian, one of the most noted Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons, whether the government was thinking of easing its zero-COVID policy in response to the "widespread display of anger and frustration."
Zhao, a deputy director general in the foreign ministry's information department and celebrated by government supporters as a "wolf warrior," paused for about 30 seconds, silently shuffling papers. He finally asked the reporter, "Could you, could you please repeat your question?"
The Reuters reporter repeated his question, slowly.
After another pause that lasted about 20 seconds, Zhao said: "The situation you described is inconsistent with facts."
The exchange was omitted from an official transcript issued by the Chinese foreign ministry. But it did prompt comments on Chinese social media.
"Couldn't he have said, 'I don't know, let me go check with boss [and get back to you]?'" asked one person on Twitter, who described himself as an average guy born in Beijing and now living in Odesa, Ukraine.
"It would have been less of an embarrassment if he did that," continued the tweet from a poster named Jixian Wang. His post of the clip from the press conference received more than a half-million views in seven hours.