The latest demonstrations are unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago.
Hundreds of demonstrators and police have clashed in Shanghai as protests over China’s severe COVID-19 restrictions continued into a third day and spread to several other cities.
The latest demonstrations — unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago — began after 10 people were killed in a fire in Urumqi, the capital of the far-western region of Xinjiang, that many of the protesters blame on protracted COVID-19 lockdowns.
The deaths have become a lightning rod for frustrations over Beijing’s dogged commitment to zero-COVID and its combination of strict lockdowns, mass testing and tracking that continues to impede people’s lives three years after the first cases of the then-unknown virus were detected in the central city of Wuhan.
“I’m here because I love my country, but I don’t love my government … I want to be able to go out freely, but I can’t. Our COVID-19 policy is a game and is not based on science or reality,” protester Shaun Xiao told the Reuters news agency in Shanghai, China’s largest city.
Hundreds of people gathered on Sunday evening in the city, holding up blank sheets of paper as an expression of the censorship of protest, as police kept a heavy presence on Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi, and where a candlelight vigil on Saturday evolved into a protest.
A Reuters witness saw police escorting people onto a bus which was later driven away through the crowd with a few dozen people on board. An accredited BBC reporter covering the protests was assaulted and detained for several hours, the United Kingdom’s public broadcaster said.
“The BBC is extremely concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed while covering the protests in Shanghai,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“He was held for several hours before being released. During his arrest, he was beaten and kicked by the police.”
‘We want freedom’
Protesters also took to the streets of Wuhan and Chengdu on Sunday, while students on numerous university campuses around China gathered to demonstrate over the weekend.
In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totalling at least 1,000 people gathered along the Chinese capital’s Third Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.
“We don’t want masks, we want freedom. We don’t want COVID tests, we want freedom,” one of the groups chanted earlier.
Thursday’s fire in Urumqi was followed by crowds there taking to the city’s street on Friday evening, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air, according to unverified videos on social media.
On Sunday, a large crowd gathered in the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu, according to videos on social media. There, they also held up blank sheets of paper and chanted: “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors,” a reference to Xi, who has scrapped presidential term limits.
In Wuhan, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents taking to the streets, smashing through metal barricades, overturning COVID testing tents and demanding an end to lockdowns.
Other cities that have seen public dissent include Lanzhou in the northwest. Protesters said they were put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive.
“People have been incredibly patient with lockdown measures but authorities must not abuse emergency policies,” Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director Hana Young said in a statement. “These unprecedented protests show that people are at the end of their tolerance for excessive Covid-19 restrictions.
“The Chinese government must immediately review its Covid-19 policies to ensure that they are proportionate and time-bound. All quarantine measures that pose threats to personal safety and unnecessarily restrict freedom of movement must be suspended.”
Pressure on party
China has stuck with Xi’s zero-COVID policy even as much of the world has lifted most pandemic-related restrictions, but the emergence of more transmissible variants has blunted the effectiveness of the measures to stamp out the virus.
While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have reached record highs for days, with more than 40,000 new cases reported by the authorities in their Monday update.
Beijing has defended the policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system, but has tweaked its approach after a prolonged lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year fuelled anger and frustration among the city’s 25 million residents.
The National Health Commission has sent officers to various local authorities to help implement the new policies and “rectify some problems”, and avoid a “one size fits all” approach and “excessive policy steps” in tackling outbreaks, the state-run Global Times reported on Monday.
It noted that authorities in the eastern city of Hefei had issued a “not-to-do” list of 16 items, including not to seal and weld doors for those quarantined at home, while in central Zhengzhou, officials clarified that a “stay-at-home” order meant residents would still be allowed out for medical treatment, emergencies, escape and rescue.
In Urumqi, where many of the regional capital’s four million people have been barred from leaving their homes for as many as 100 days, officials have denied the COVID-19 lockdown measures had hampered escape and rescue efforts in the Thursday fire.
Frustration, however, is boiling just more than a month after Xi secured a third term as leader of China’s Communist Party.
“This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one response will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters,” said Dan Mattingly, assistant professor of political science at Yale University.
Still, he cautioned, the unrest is far from that seen in 1989 when protests culminated in the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
He added that as long as Xi had China’s elite and the military on his side, he would not face any meaningful risk to his grip on power.
“The tragedy of the Urumqi fire has inspired remarkable bravery across China. Unfortunately, China’s playbook is all too predictable,” said Amnesty’s Young. “Censorship and surveillance will continue, and we will most likely see police use of force and mass arrests of protesters in the coming hours and days. Long prison sentences against peaceful protesters are also to be expected.”