Chinese protests spread over government Covid restrictions

Protests erupt in several major cities across China over President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19, an unusual show of defiance in the country as the economic and social costs of instant lockdowns and other strict restrictions are intensifying.

The protests followed demonstrations on Friday in Urumqi, the capital of the remote Xinjiang region, where a deadly fire enraged residents of the city who had been battling lockdowns for more than 100 days. Residents flooded social media with comments suggesting the government’s Covid restrictions helped delay the extinguishment of the blaze, in which officials said 10 people died.

On Saturday, videos circulating on social media showed crowds gathering on a street in central Shanghai calling for the lifting of lockdowns. The videos were verified by Storyful, a social media research company owned by News Corp News Corp,

parent company of the Wall Street Journal.

A clip showed protesters standing around a road sign reading Wulumuqi Middle Road, named after Urumqi, suggesting the protests were inspired by protests in that city on Friday. Using swear words and call-and-response chants, they denounced Mr Xi’s Covid control strategy. Another clip from the scene showed protesters standing in front of police lines.

The clip showed a man chanting “The Communist Party.”

Others replied: “Resign”.

“Xi Jinping,” shouted the lone man.

“Resign,” others replied.

Other videos and photographs circulating online showed students protesting at the Communication University of China in the eastern city of Nanjing, with a clip showing “Long live the people” chants.

The Journal spoke to people in Shanghai and Nanjing, who confirmed the clips showed events taking place in those cities on Saturday.

In parts of Beijing, the capital with some of the strictest security measures in the country, residents were emerging from closed compounds earlier on Saturday, with some demanding to ease what they said were excessive Covid restrictions, according to reports. videos on social networks and the inhabitants who participated in the actions.

On Chinese social media, users raced against censors to spread images and news of the protests, as well as expressions of solidarity. “Long live the people, may the dead rest in peace,” reads a message that went viral.

A person lights a candle during a vigil held in Shanghai for the victims of the Urumqi fire, in this photo taken from a social media video.


Photo:

GAO MING/Gao Ming via REUTERS

Earlier in the week, workers at the world’s largest Apple iPhone assembly plant clashed with police after protests erupted at the plant in central China, where the sprawling factory employing more than 200,000 people have been under strict Covid-19 checks for weeks.

Open displays of anger are rare in China, where a crackdown on dissent has intensified over the past decade under Mr. Xi. The outbreak of protests over the same issue in several Chinese cities is almost unheard of, outside of nationalist outpourings, such as anti-Japanese protests. Since the student democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the ruling party has worked to prevent public protests from occurring.

The protests highlight Chinese society’s growing record of a Covid strategy built around mass testing and containment to quash even minor outbreaks – an approach that has become increasingly unsustainable.

The strategy saved lives and proved effective earlier in the pandemic, which began in China’s central city of Wuhan in early 2020. It has come to buttress Mr. Xi’s view that the China has handled the virus better than the West.

However, more contagious strains of Covid-19 have since made complete elimination of the virus virtually impossible. Meanwhile, frequent shutdowns have kept businesses shuttered and pushed up youth unemployment as China now faces its worst downturn in decades.

In addition, many cases have been reported of people dying of other illnesses for which they could not be treated due to the closures.

Wary of the high stakes, China’s top leaders unveiled plans earlier this month to “optimize and adjust” the strict zero-Covid policy to save the economy. However, with keeping Covid under control remaining a top political priority, local authorities across the country doubled down on efforts to impose restrictions as cases spiked with the winter season.

“A lot of people are reaching the breaking point,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, which is closely monitoring the Covid situation in China.

Mr Huang and several other analysts compared the waves of Covid-related protests to public sentiment around the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

“If mishandled by the government, the highly volatile situation could rapidly evolve into the most serious political crisis since Tiananmen,” Huang said.

Video clips from Shanghai showed police leading away protesters while others chanted, “Let go!

At Nanjing University of Communication, a student told a cheering crowd, “I speak on behalf of my own hometown, I speak on behalf of those who have lost family members in the [Urumqi] fire, and speaks in the name of all the compatriots who died across the country.

A person answering the phone at the Shanghai municipal government said no one was available to answer questions over the weekend. Appeals to the Beijing municipal government and Nanjing University of Communication went unanswered.

Urumqi officials said after last week’s blaze that rescuers had to remove some barriers, but blamed a delay in extinguishing the blaze on too many cars parked in the compound. On Saturday, Urumqi officials said normal activities would gradually resume in areas of the city considered low risk for Covid.

Write to Lingling Wei at [email protected]

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