Anti-lockdown protests spread in China as anger rises over zero-Covid strategy | China


People opposed to China’s stringent Covid restrictions have protested in cities across the country in the biggest wave of civil disobedience on the mainland since Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.

Protests triggered by a deadly apartment fire in the far west of the country last week took place on Sunday in cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou, according to footage shared on social media, in defiance of a series of heavy-handed arrests of demonstrators on Saturday night.

In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totalling at least 1,000 people were gathered along the Chinese capital’s 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.

In an unusually bold act that appeared to indicate the level of people’s desperation, a crowd in Shanghai late on Saturday night called for the removal of the Communist party and Xi during a standoff with police, chanting: “Communist party! Step down! Xi Jinping! Step down!” Chinese people usually refrain from criticising the party and its leaders in public for fear of reprisals.



The protests erupted on Friday in Urumqi, the regional capital of the far west Xinjiang region, after footage of a fire in a residential building that killed at least 10 people the day before led to accusations that a Covid lockdown was a factor in the death toll.

Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny Covid measures had hampered escape and rescue. Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.


In Shanghai, China’s biggest city and a global financial hub, crowds returned to Middle Urumqi Road – named after the Xinjiang capital – for a second day on Sunday, despite a series of widely documented arrests the day before.

Police closed the street to non-local traffic and made arrests, according to videos online. A photograph which quickly went viral on Sunday night appeared to show police removing the Middle Urumqi Road street sign.


According to photos posted on Chinese social media, a note stuck to a lamp-post on the road said: “To our friends in Urumqi: I love you like I love this road, like I love my family. November 26th, 22.”


Other photos show a candlelit vigil in front of a luxury apartment compound on the same street, with a cardboard sign amid a sea of white candles reading: “Urumqi November 24. May those who died rest in peace.”

“We just want our basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far,” a 26-year-old protester in Shanghai who declined to be identified told Reuters.

On Saturday, people in Shanghai had chanted “No PCR tests, we want freedom!” followed by rounds of repeated calls for “Freedom! Freedom!” This echoed the call of a lone protester in Beijing in October.

Police, foreground, watch protesters in Shanghai on Saturday, in an image from video
Police watch protesters in Shanghai on Saturday, in a screengrab taken from video. Photograph: AP

Widespread in-person protests are rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent on social media where they play cat-and-mouse games with censors.

Photos and videos circulated on Chinese social media seen by the Guardian were quickly removed by internet censors, but many continued to circulate on Twitter, which is blocked in China.

Crowdsourced lists on social media claim protests have been documented at as many as 50 Chinese universities over the weekend.

At Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, students shouted “freedom will prevail” and called for an end to lockdowns on Sunday, while people holding a peaceful riverside vigil defied police orders to move on. A student told AFP that some students had held up a blank piece of paper near the canteen at about 11.30am, and that 200 to 300 people had joined them by the afternoon. Blank sheets have become a symbol of the burgeoning protests.

According to videos shared online, protesters shouted: “This is not normal life, we’ve had enough. Our lives were not like this before.” Others chanted: “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”

A large crowd gathered in the south-western metropolis of Chengdu, according to videos on social media, where they also held up blank sheets of paper and chanted: “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors,” a reference to Xi, who has scrapped presidential term limits.

In Wuhan, pandemic barricades were pushed down and in Chengdu people shouted: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Another city that saw public dissent was Lanzhou in the north-west, where residents on Saturday overturned Covid staff tents and smashed testing booths, posts on social media showed. Protesters said they were put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive.

According to photos and videos on Sina Weibo that were later deleted, in the Communication University of China at Nanjing, in eastern China, two students held up white sheets of paper on a campus plaza on Saturday. By night, they were joined by crowds of students who lit up their mobile phones and sang the national anthem, including the phrase: “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves.” They chanted: “Ten thousand years to the people. May the dead rest in peace!”

One of the young men was cheered by the crowd as he said: “I used to be a coward, but today I have to speak up for those who have perished!” Calls to the university for comment were unanswered.

Shanghai protests on Saturday against the government’s Covid measures
Protests in Shanghai on Saturday against the government’s Covid measures. Photograph: AP

Related protests at the University of Hong Kong, where mainland Chinese students held flowers and handed out flyers about the Urumqi fire, were quickly cracked down on after the university called the police. Police left after taking their personal details, according to a student magazine. Local media later reported the university said it called police because the protesters would not give their personal details to campus security.

Assistant Prof Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist formerly with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said that although widespread, the Chinese protests were unlikely to threaten the central government. He expected the government would use appeasement and crackdowns to defuse the discontent.

“One needs to observe whether the anti-Xi slogans will spread, but Xi could shift the responsibility [to local authorities] as [the central government] can say it’s the local governments who have over-enforced” the Covid curbs, he said, referring to a government announcement on 11 November that eased some restrictions and urged local officials to refrain from indiscriminate Covid restrictions.

On Sunday, an editorial in the Communist party People’s Daily said that the “war” against the pandemic must go on, while decrying the over-implementation of curbs: “No shifting. No disintegration. Implement measures for a highly efficient pandemic control and economic development,” it said.

Reuters contributed to this report


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