Angry protesters in China are calling for Xi Jinping to step down as president in rare shows of dissent that have spread to many cities including Shanghai and Beijing and universities as a result of frustration over the government’s zero-Covid policies.
Around 300 protesters gathered at Middle Urumqi road in Shanghai on Saturday to pay tribute to the victims of a major apartment block fire that killed 10 people in Urumqi on Thursday night. Some social media accounts have suggested residents couldn’t leave their homes during the fire because of Covid-19 control measures.
The Shanghai protesters carried flowers and candles and held signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace”, as well as singing the national anthem. But others expressed rare criticism directed towards the government, yelling: “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down”, “unlock Xinjiang, unlock China”, “[we] do not want PCR [tests], [we] want freedom” and “press freedom”, according to the account of one demonstrator named Zhao.
Police eventually used pepper spray and brute force to break up the protest. A protester, Zhao, told the Associated Press that officers beat up one of his friends and two others were pepper sprayed. A police official also stamped on his feet when he tried to stop them from detaining his friend.
Another photo from the protest site showed dozens of people carrying blank pieces of paper in a sign of resistance to the ongoing restrictions.
The energy was encouraging, one protester said. An ethnic Uyghur told AP: “Everyone thinks that Chinese people are afraid to come out and protest, that they don’t have any courage. Actually, in my heart, I also thought of this. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.”
A crowdsourced list on social media showed that there were demonstrations in 50 universities. Videos posted that said they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south, Beijing in the north and at least five other cities showed protesters tussling with police in white Hazmat protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighbourhoods as others cheered and clapped.
China is the only major economy to continue with lockdowns, regular testing and quarantine measures for its citizens in order to fight the pandemic, almost three years after the Covid-19 virus first emerged in China’s Wuhan city.
Despite growing public unhappiness at the measures, many local authorities are strengthening their Covid restrictions in the face of growing numbers of cases. On Sunday, the country recorded a total of 39,506 new Covid infections – a record high for the fourth day in a row.
Yet for many people concern about the rising cases is secondary to anger at prolonged periods of lockdown, which can be triggered by just a handful of cases reported in any district.
Political scientist Ian Bremmer said that the spiralling protests present the biggest threat to Mr Xi’s rule in China so far. A protester who chanted with the crowd in Shanghai confirmed that people did shout for his removal, public sentiments that were impossible to imagine being chanted a year ago.
There was only a little evidence of the protests on Chinese social media, which is censored by the Communist Party, but some videos have been shared globally via Twitter and Facebook. Exiled artist Ai Weiwei shared videos of the protests on his Instagram page.
There were also peaceful protests held in Urumqi on Friday night to condemn the zero-Covid restrictions prohibiting people from resuming their daily life.
Videos show locals holding the Chinese flag and chanting “open up, open up”, with others shouting and pushing against rows of men in the white whole-body Hazmat suits that local government workers and pandemic-prevention volunteers typically wear.
Officials have denied claims that barricades near the building involved in the Urumqi fire prevented firefighters from effectively tackling the blaze and said that the residents were permitted to leave their homes at the time.
Additional reporting by AP