SHANGHAI (AP) — Protesters angered by tough anti-virus measures have called on China’s powerful leader to step down, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to quell protests on Sunday that represent a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.
Police used pepper spray to chase away protesters in Shanghai who called for the resignation of Xi Jinping and an end to one-party rule, but hours later people gathered again in the same place. Police again dispersed the protest and a reporter saw arrested protesters being taken to a bus.
The protests – which began on Friday and have spread to cities including the capital, Beijing, and dozens of college campuses – are the most widespread demonstration of opposition to the ruling party in decades.
In a video of the protest in Shanghai verified by The Associated Press, the chants against Xi, the most powerful leader since at least the 1980s, and the Chinese Communist Party rang out loud and clear: “Xi Jinping! Resign! CCP! Resign!”
Three years after the virus emerged, China is the only major country still trying to stop the transmission of COVID-19. Its “zero COVID” strategy suspended access to neighborhoods for weeks. Some cities perform daily virus tests on millions of residents.
That has kept China’s infection numbers lower than the United States and other major countries, but public acceptance has waned. People quarantined at home in some areas say they lack food and medicine. The ruling party has faced public anger over the deaths of two children whose parents said virus checks hampered efforts to get medical help.
The current protests erupted after a fire broke out on Thursday that killed at least 10 people at an apartment building in the northwest city of Urumqi, where some have been locked up in their homes for four months . It sparked a flurry of angry questions online about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were being blocked by locked doors or other restrictions.
About 300 protesters gathered Saturday night in Shanghai, most of which 25 million people were confined to their homes for nearly two months from the end of March.
On a street named after Urumqi, a group of protesters brought candles, flowers and signs honoring those who died in the fire. Another group, according to a protester who insisted on anonymity, were more active, shouting slogans and singing the national anthem.
This protester and another, who gave only his last name, Zhao, confirmed the chants against Xi, who has granted himself a third five-year term as head of the ruling party and whom some expect trying to stay in power for life. Like others who spoke to the AP, the protesters did not want to be identified for fear of arrest or reprisals.
The atmosphere of the protest encouraged people to talk about topics considered taboo, including the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, said the protester, who insisted on anonymity.
Some have called for an official apology for the deaths in the Urumqi fire in the Xinjiang region. A member of Xinjiang’s Uyghur ethnic group, who has been the target of a security crackdown that includes mass detentions, shared his experiences of discrimination and police violence.
“Everyone thinks the Chinese are afraid to come out and protest, that they don’t have the courage,” the protester said, adding that it was his first demonstration. “Actually, in my heart, I thought that way too. But when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.
The scene turned violent on Sunday morning. Hundreds of police dispersed the most active group before they came for the second as they tried to keep people away from the main street. The protester said he saw people being taken away, forced by police into vans, but could not identify them.
Zhao said one of his friends was beaten by police and two others were sprayed with pepper spray. He lost his shoes and went barefoot.
He said protesters shouted slogans, including one that became a rallying cry: “(We) don’t want PCR (tests), but want freedom.”
On Sunday afternoon, the crowds returned to the same location and again protested the PCR tests. People stood up and filmed as the police pushed people around.
Officers wearing surgical masks and yellow safety vests told the crowd of around 300 spectators to leave but appeared to be trying to avoid a confrontation. There was no sign of shields or other riot control equipment.
In Beijing, a group of around 200 people gathered in a park on the eastern side of the capital and held up blank sheets of paper, a symbol of defiance to the ruling party’s pervasive censorship.
“The lockdown policy is so strict,” said one protester, who only gave his last name, Li. “You can’t compare it to another country. We have to find a way out. »
Social media posts said there were also protests at 50 universities.
About 2,000 students at Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University in Beijing, gathered to demand a relaxation of virus controls, according to social media posts. The students shouted “free speech!” and sang the Internationale, the socialist anthem.
The protesters left after the university’s Communist Party deputy secretary promised to hold a school-wide discussion.
Social media videos that said they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south and at least six other cities showed protesters fighting with police in white protective gear or dismantling barricades used to seal districts. The Associated Press could not verify if all of these protests took place or where.
Human rights group Amnesty International has called on Beijing to allow a peaceful protest.
“The tragedy of the Urumqi fire has inspired remarkable bravery across China,” the group’s regional manager Hanna Young said in a statement. “These unprecedented protests show that people are at the end of their tolerance for the excessive restrictions of COVID-19. »
Urumqi and a small Xinjiang city, Korla, relaxed some virus checks in what appeared to be an attempt to appease the public after Friday’s protests.
Markets and other businesses will reopen in areas deemed to be at low risk of virus transmission and bus, train and plane services will resume, state media reported. They gave no indication whether residents of high-risk areas would be allowed out of their homes.
This version has been updated to correct that the fire in Urumqi occurred on Thursday and not Friday.
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.