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For the first time in decades, tens of thousands of people are defying the Chinese authorities, protesting in the streets of universities and major cities, demanding to be freed not only from constant Covid testing and lockdowns, but from the strict censorship and strictures imposed by the Communist Party on all countries Control every aspect of your life.
Across the country, “want to be free” has become the rallying cry of a wave of protests led largely by younger generations, some of whom were too young to join previous activism against the government publicly.
“Give me freedom or give me death!” crowds of hundreds shouted in several cities, according to videos circulating online. A vigil to commemorate at least 10 people killed in a fire in Xinjiang has turned into a political rally.
Videos circulating online appear to show that China’s strict zero-Covid policy initially prevented emergency workers from getting to the scene, angering residents across the country who have endured three years of varying Covid-control measures.
Some protesters chanted freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and other political demands in cities ranging from the eastern financial center of Shanghai to the capital Beijing, southern metropolis Guangzhou and western Chengdu.
CNN has verified protests at 16 locations and reported others in dozens of other cities and universities across the country.
Protesters take to Hong Kong streets in solidarity with China
While protests in some parts of China appeared to have largely peacefully dissipated over the weekend, authorities have responded more forcefully to some protests — and have tightened security across cities in a country where authorities have extensive surveillance and security capabilities .
In Beijing, a day after protests erupted, there was a noticeably heavy police presence on Monday night. Police cars, many with their lights flashing, were parked on eerily quiet streets in parts of the capital, including near the Liangma Bridge in the Chaoyang district of the city centre, where large crowds of protesters gathered Sunday night.
Asked on Monday whether the “pervasive expressions of anger and frustration” across the country would prompt China to abandon its zero-coronavirus approach, a foreign ministry spokesman dismissed the dissent.
“What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened,” said spokesman Zhao Lijian, adding that authorities had been “adjusting” their coronavirus policies based on “realities on the ground.”
“We believe that under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful,” he said.
In a symbolic protest against tightening censorship, young demonstrators across China held up blank papers — a metaphor for the countless critical posts, news articles and outspoken social media accounts that have been removed from the internet.
“I think in a just society, no one should be criminalized for what they say. Our society should not have just one voice — we need multiple voices,” a protester in Beijing told CNN in the early hours of Monday Net, he paraded along the city’s third ring road with a thin stack of white A4 paper.
“I hope in the future, I’m not going to hold a blank slate and say what I really want to say,” said the protester, who was not named by CNN for fear of repercussions for speaking out.
The United Nations urged Chinese authorities on Monday to guarantee people’s “right to peacefully demonstrate,” Stephen Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, told a daily briefing.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley said China’s ruling Communist Party should “pay attention” to the protests.
“Protests against the Chinese government are rare. So when they do happen, I think it’s worth our attention, but more importantly, I think the Chinese government has a responsibility to watch out for its own people,” Cleverly told reporters.
Over the weekend, censors moved swiftly to remove videos and photos of the protests from the Chinese internet, even as the shocking images grabbed global headlines.
In online commentary, Chinese state media made no mention of the protests, instead emphasizing the strengths of Beijing’s anti-coronavirus policies, emphasizing that they are both “scientific and effective.”
But for many protesters, the demonstrations meant much more than the pandemic — they brought together many free-thinking young people whose attempts to speak out might otherwise be thwarted by strict online censorship.
A Shanghai resident in his 20s who participated in the candlelight vigil in the early hours of Sunday said they were greeted by other young people holding white papers, flowers and shouting “I want freedom” as they walked towards the makeshift memorial.
“My friends and I went through the lockdown in Shanghai, and the so-called ‘iron fist’ fell on all of us,” they told CNN. “That night, I felt like I could finally do something. I can’t sit still, I have to go.”
They quietly shed tears in the crowd as the cries for freedom grew louder.
“At that moment, I felt like I wasn’t alone,” they said. “I realize I’m not the only one who thinks that way.”
In some cases, the protests have taken on a more provocative tone and openly called for political change.
On the first night of demonstrations in Shanghai, crowds chanted “Xi Jinping step down! Communist Party step down!” in an unprecedented direct challenge to the supreme leader. On Sunday night, some protesters again chanted for Mr. Xi to step down.
In Chengdu, the protesters did not name Mr. Xi, but their message cannot be ignored. “Stop the dictatorship!” was chanted as hundreds gathered on the bustling riverbank in a popular food and shopping district on Sunday night, according to the video and one participant.
“We don’t want rulers for life. We don’t want emperors!” they yelled with a thinly veiled reference to the Chinese leader, who started an unconventional third term last month.
The crowd also protested changes to the party’s charter and the country’s constitution — which would allow Mr. Xi to further consolidate his grip on power and remove presidential term limits, according to participants.
As in Shanghai, the gathering began with a small candlelight vigil for those killed in the fire in Urumqi on Thursday.
But as more people gathered, the vigil turned into an arena for louder expressions of political discontent.
“People naturally started chanting these slogans,” said the attendee. “It’s very rare that we have rallies and demonstrations of this magnitude. It doesn’t feel like there are enough words of condolence and we have to shout something we want to say.”
For her, the suffocating experience of censorship inevitably fuels a desire for “institutional and spiritual freedom,” and mourning the victims and demanding democratic freedoms are two “inseparable” things.
“We all know that the reason we have to continue the lockdown and the coronavirus testing is because it’s a political movement, not a scientific and logical response,” she said. “That’s why, in addition to lifting the lockdown, We have more political demands.”
The Chengdu protester said she was encouraged by the wave of demonstrations sweeping the country.
“It turns out there are so many people who are fully conscious,” she said. “I think I can see a glimmer of light ahead.”