Protests against China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies resurfaced in Shanghai and Beijing on Sunday afternoon, continuing a series of demonstrations that have spread across the country for ain the northwest city of Urumqi has raised questions about such rigid anti-virus measures.
Crowds stood up and filmed as police began shoving people who had gathered on the same street in Shanghai where police forcefully removed hundreds hours earlier.
They shouted, “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom!” according to a witness who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.
Since Friday, people have staged protests across China, where street protests are extremely rare. But anger and frustration erupted following the death of a building fire in Urumqi which the public believe was caused by excessive lockdowns which delayed rescue.
A crowdsourced list on social media showed there had been protests at 50 universities. Videos posted to social media claiming to have been filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south, Beijing in the north and at least five other cities showed protesters fighting with police in white protective gear or dismantling used barricades to seal the quarters. The Associated Press could not independently verify all of the protests.
Online, videos of the scenes quickly emerged. Some of the most shared videos came from Shanghai, which suffered a devastating lockdown in the spring during which people struggled to secure groceries and medicine and were forcibly placed in central quarantine.
In the dark early hours of Sunday, standing on the road named after a city in Xinjiang where at least 10 people had just died in an apartment fire, protesters chanted “Xi Jinping! Quit! CCP ! Resign”.
A protester who sang along with the crowd confirmed that people had been shouting for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping – words many would never have thought had been spoken in one of China’s biggest cities.
Hundreds of protesters had gathered in a street in Shanghai starting around midnight on Saturday. They split into two different sections of Middle Urumqi Road. There was a group that was calmer and brought candles, flowers and signs honoring those who died in the apartment fire. The other, said a protester who declined to be named for fear of arrest, was more active, shouting slogans and singing the national anthem.
The energy was encouraging, the protester said. People have called for an official apology for the deaths in the Urumqi fire. Others referred to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in which the ruling Communist Party ordered troops to fire on student protesters. An ethnic Uyghur individual 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,” said the protester who said it was his first demonstration. “Actually, in my heart, I thought about that too. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.”
At first, the scene was peaceful. Around 3 a.m. it got violent. Police began to surround the protesters and dispersed the more active first group before they came for the second who had brought flowers. The aim was to keep people away from the main street.
A protester who gave only his surname, Zhao, said one of his friends was beaten by police and two others pepper sprayed. He said police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process and left the protest barefoot.
Zhao says protesters shouted slogans such as “(We) don’t want PCR (testing), but want freedom,” in reference to the protest organized by a lone man in Beijing ahead of the 20th Communist Party Congress in Beijing. Beijing in October.
After three years of harsh lockdowns that left people confined to their homes for weeks, the Xinjiang blaze appears to have finally shattered the Chinese public’s ability to tolerate the harsh measures.
China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 with strict lockdowns and mass testing has been hailed by its own citizens as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections. Xi had held up the approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system over the West and particularly the United States, which had politicized the use of masks and had struggled to implement widespread lockdowns.
Over the past few weeks, this attitude has changed as the tragedies under the over-enforcement of “zero COVID” have piled up.
In Shanghai, hundreds of police lined up, forming groups around protesters in a bid to wipe them out, protesters said. After a few hours of effort, the police divided the protesters into small groups, pushing them out of Urumqi Road.
Around 5 a.m. on Sunday, the police had managed to clear the crowd.
The protester who declined to be named said he saw several people being taken away, forced by police into vans, but could not identify them. An online crowdsourcing attempt has so far identified six people being taken away, based on images and video from the night, as well as information provided by those who knew the detainee. Among the inmates is a young woman who is only known by her nickname “Little He”.
Posters circulated online calling for further action in Shanghai and Chengdu, a major city in southwest China, on Sunday evening. The Shanghai protest called for the release of those taken away.
In Beijing, students from the country’s top university, Tsinghua University, staged a protest on Sunday afternoon outside one of the school’s cafeterias. Three young women had stood there initially with a simple message of condolence for the victims of the Urumqi apartment fire, according to a witness, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
The students shouted “freedom of expression” and sang the Internationale. The school’s deputy party secretary arrived at the protest, promising to organize a school-wide discussion.
Meanwhile, two cities in northwest China, where residents have been confined to their homes for up to four months, eased some virus checks on Sunday after public protests on Friday.
Urumqi, where the fire occurred, is a city of 4.8 million people and capital of the Xinjiang region, along with the smaller city of Korla were preparing to reopen markets and other businesses in areas deemed low risk for transmission of the virus and to restart bus, rail and air service, state media reported.