Protests erupted across China on Saturday, including at universities and in Shanghai, as hundreds chanted “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” in unprecedented defiance of the country’s strict and increasingly costly zero-Covid policy.
Ten people were killed and nine injured in a deadly fire at an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of the western region of Xinjiang, on Thursday, the catalyst for public outrage as videos emerged that appeared to show lockdown measures delayed firefighters from arriving victim.
On dozens of university campuses, students held rallies or put up posters mourning the victims of the fires in Xinjiang and speaking out against zero coronavirus. In several cities, residents of locked-down neighborhoods tore down barriers and took to the streets following massive anti-lockdown protests that gripped Urumqi on Friday night.
scenes of anger and defiance so common – some of which lasted until Sunday – Rare in China, the ruling Communist Party brutally suppresses all dissent. But three years into the pandemic, many have been pushed to the brink by the government’s constant use of lockdowns, Covid tests and quarantines.
The tightening of restrictions in recent months, coupled with a string of heartbreaking deaths blamed on overzealous efforts to contain them, has heightened the urgency.
That anger has led to a notable act of defiance in the financial hub of Shanghai, where many of the city’s 25 million residents harbor deep resentment for being Covid-free after a two-month lockdown in the spring.
Hundreds of residents gathered late Saturday night on Urumqi Road, named after the city of Urumqi, for a candlelight vigil in memory of victims of the fire in Xinjiang, according to a video widely circulated on Chinese social media and quickly censored, and an eyewitness. account.
Surrounding the makeshift memorial of candles, flowers and placards, crowds held aloft blank white papers – traditionally a symbolic protest against censorship – and chanted “human rights needed, freedom needed”.
In multiple videos seen by CNN, people can be heard chanting for Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to “step down.” The crowd also chanted: “No Covid testing, freedom!” and “No dictatorship, democracy!”
Some videos showed people singing the Chinese national anthem and The Internationale, the flag of the socialist movement, while holding up banners protesting the country’s unusually strict anti-epidemic measures.
A line of police, who had initially been watching outside, began moving in and dispersing the crowd around 3 a.m., sparking a tense standoff with protesters, according to a witness.
Witnesses told CNN that just after 4:30 a.m. they saw several people being arrested and taken to a police van next to the makeshift memorial. Witnesses said the protests dispersed before dawn.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Shanghai residents returned to the scene to continue protesting despite heavy police and roadblocks.
The video showed hundreds of people shouting “Free the people!” at the intersection, demanding that the police release the detained demonstrators.
This time, police appeared to be taking a tougher approach, taking quicker and more aggressive action to arrest and disperse crowds.
In one video, a police officer tries to stop a man giving a speech while walking a crosswalk with a bouquet of chrysanthemums.
“We need to be braver! Am I breaking the law by holding flowers?” he asked the crowd, who yelled “No!” in reply.
“We Chinese must be brave!” he said to the applause of the crowd. “A lot of us were arrested yesterday. Are they without jobs or without families? We shouldn’t be afraid!”
More than a dozen police officers forcibly pushed him into the police car. The man fought back and the angry crowd chanted “Let him go!” and rushed to the vehicle.
Other videos showed chaotic scenes of police pushing, pulling and beating protesters.
Live broadcasts showed hundreds of people chanting “gangsters” at police that night after a protester was violently dragged away.
Given the history of the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, many of which have erupted on university campuses — which are particularly politically sensitive to the Communist Party.
In the early hours of Sunday, about 100 students gathered around a protest sign on the wall of Beijing’s prestigious Peking University. One student told CNN that when he arrived at the scene around 1 a.m., security guards were covering up protest signs with their jackets.
“Say no to lockdown, say yes to freedom. Say no to Covid testing, say yes to food,” the message, written in red paint, read, echoing the slogans of protests on a Beijing overpass in October, just after Xi Jinping announced in 2019 The power comes days before an important Communist Party meeting for a third re-election in 2009.
A protest sign at Peking University read: “Open your eyes and see the world, the dynamic zero-coronavirus is a lie.”
Security guards later covered the signs with black paint, the student said.
The students later gathered to sing the Internationale before being dispersed by teachers and security.
In the eastern province of Jiangsu, at least dozens of students from the Communication University of China in Nanjing gathered Saturday night to mourn those killed in the fires in Xinjiang. The video shows students holding up blank sheets of paper and mobile phone flashlights.
In one video, a university official can be heard warning students: “You will pay for what you did today.”
“You too, and so does the country,” a student replies aloud.
Protests on campus continued Sunday. At Tsinghua University, another top university in Beijing, hundreds of students gathered in a square to protest against Covid-free and censorship.
Videos and pictures circulating on social media showed students holding blank papers and shouting: “Democracy and the rule of law! Free speech!”
In one video, a female student can be heard yelling to the cheers of the crowd: “From today, I will no longer give oral sex to the state power!”
Residents in other parts of the country demonstrated against the lockdown of their neighbourhoods, after massive protests in Urumqi forced authorities to announce a gradual easing of a lockdown that has lasted more than 100 days.
Hundreds of Urumqi residents, some carrying Chinese flags, marched to a government building on Friday night, chanting “end the lockdown,” according to a video circulating on Chinese social media and by a Urumqi resident. Smaller protests have also erupted in residential neighborhoods across the city, with residents breaking through lockdown barriers and brawling with officials.
Over the weekend, anti-lockdown protests engulfed communities in cities ranging from Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan to Lanzhou.
Residents of several residential areas in Beijing violated the lockdown order, according to social media videos. In one compound, residents marched and chanted: “Say no to coronavirus testing, say yes to freedom!”
In the northwestern city of Lanzhou, residents rushed out of their cordoned-off neighborhoods to roam the streets freely on Saturday. A video sent to CNN by a resident showed some people overturning a Covid worker’s tent and smashing a testing stand.
Earlier this month, residents of the same neighborhood took to the streets to demand answers from authorities regarding the death of a 3-year-old boy. He died of gas poisoning after his father was prevented from taking him to the hospital in time.
The area and the rest of Lanzhou have been under lockdown since October 1.