Protests erupted across China from Shanghai to Beijing in a rare expression of dissent against the ruling Communist Party, sparked by anger over the country’s increasingly costly zero-Covid policy.
As demonstrations surged in several major cities over the weekend, so did the expressions of discontent – with some calling for greater democracy and freedoms.
Among the thousands of protesters, hundreds even called for the ouster of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who for nearly three years has overseen a strategy of mass testing, forceful lockdowns, enforced quarantines and digital tracing that has taken a toll on humanity. Devastating blow. and economic costs.
Here’s what we know.
Last Thursday, protests were sparked by a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the western region of Xinjiang. A fire that killed at least 10 people and injured nine others in an apartment building sparked public outrage after video of the incident appeared to show lockdown measures delayed firefighters from reaching victims.
The city has been locked down for more than 100 days, with residents unable to leave the area and many forced to stay at home.
Video showed residents of Urumqi marching to government buildings on Friday, chanting for an end to the lockdown. The next morning, the local government said it would lift the lockdown in stages – but did not provide a clear time frame or address the protests.
That failed to quell public anger, and the protests quickly spread beyond Xinjiang, taking to the streets in cities and universities across China.
Why Protesters in China Hold Up the White Paper
Protests were reported across the country.
CNN has so far verified demonstrations in at least 16 locations across the country — including China’s two largest cities — the capital Beijing and financial center Shanghai.
In Shanghai on Saturday, hundreds of people gathered on Urumqi Road, named after the Xinjiang city, for a candlelight vigil in memory of victims of the fire. Many held up blank papers – a symbolic protest against censorship – and chanted “human rights needed, freedom needed”.
Hear Chinese protesters call for Xi to step down
Some people called Xi to “step down” and sang the socialist national anthem “The Internationale” For more than a century, it has been used as a rallying cry for demonstrations all over the world. It was also used during pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square before a brutal crackdown by the armed forces in 1989.
China’s zero-COVID-19 policy has been felt particularly strongly in Shanghai, where a two-month-long lockdown earlier this year left many without access to food, medical care or other basic supplies — sparking public outcry.
By Sunday night, mass demonstrations had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, with tens of thousands of residents demanding not only an end to COVID-19 restrictions, but more importantly, political freedom. Residents of some blocked communities removed barriers and took to the streets.
Protests have also taken place on campuses, including prestigious institutions such as Peking and Tsinghua Universities, as well as Communication University of China in Nanjing.
Vigils and demonstrations in solidarity with mainlanders have also been held elsewhere in the world in recent days, including in London and Sydney.
In Hong Kong, where Beijing’s 2020 national security law was used to silence dissent, dozens gathered for a vigil in the city’s central district on Monday night. Some held blank paper, some left flowers, and held signs commemorating the victims of the Urumqi fire.
Public protests are rare in China, where the Communist Party has tightened its grip on all aspects of life, launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, wiped out much of civil society and created a high-tech surveillance state.
Xinjiang’s mass surveillance system is tighter, and the Chinese government is accused of holding as many as 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in camps where former detainees claim they have been physically and sexually abused.
A condemning United Nations report in September described an “intrusive” surveillance network in the region, with police databases containing hundreds of thousands of documents containing biometric data such as face and eye scans.
China has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights violations in the region.
Maria Repnikova, an associate professor at Georgia State University who studies Chinese politics and media, said that while protests did occur in China, they were rarely of this scale or so directly aimed at the central government and national leaders.
“This is a different type of protest than the more localized protests that we’ve seen repeatedly over the past two decades, which tend to focus their claims and demands on local officials and very targeted social and economic issues.” Instead, this time around the protests expanded to include “more pointed expressions of political grievances and concerns about the Covid-19 lockdown”.
In recent months, there have been growing signs that the public is running out of patience with zero coronavirus after nearly three years of economic hardship and disruption to daily life.
Scattered protests erupted in October, and anti-coronavirus slogans, inspired by a banner hung by a lone protester on an overpass in Beijing, appeared on public bathrooms and on walls in several Chinese cities, just as Xi was consolidating the Third In power in the first few days of his term.
Larger protests took place in Guangzhou in early November, with residents defying lockdown orders, tearing down barriers and taking to the streets to cheer.
While protests in some parts of China appeared to dissipate largely peacefully over the weekend, authorities responded more strongly to some protests.
Saturday’s protests in Shanghai resulted in scuffles between demonstrators and police, who made some arrests in the early hours of the morning. Undeterred, the protesters returned on Sunday, where they met with a more aggressive response — videos showing chaotic scenes of police pushing, dragging and hitting protesters.
At one point, hundreds of police officers formed a human wall to block off major roads and loudly told protesters to leave through megaphones.
The videos have been removed from the Chinese internet by censors.
BBC reporter Edward Lawrence was arrested in Shanghai on Sunday night, with a BBC spokesman saying he was “punched and kicked by police” while covering the protests. He has been released.
On Monday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry acknowledged Lawrence’s arrest, saying he had not identified himself as a reporter before being detained.
The spokesman also deflected questions about the protests, telling a reporter who asked whether the widespread display of public anger would lead China to consider ending zero coronavirus: “What you mentioned doesn’t reflect what actually happened.”
He also claimed that social media posts linking the fires in Xinjiang to the new crown virus policy have “ulterior motives” and that the authorities have been “making adjustments according to the actual situation on the ground.” Asked about protesters calling for Xi to step down, he replied: “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
In Xinjiang, senior party officials held a meeting on Saturday — the second day of protests in Urumqi — where they called on authorities to “severely crack down” on those who spread rumors, incite incidents and violently resist epidemic control measures, state media reported. Behavior.
On Sunday, Beijing’s government made no mention of the protests and instead banned the blockade of entrances to residential complexes that are under lockdown, saying they must remain clear to allow emergency services.
By Monday, Shanghai authorities were seen erecting tall barricades along the roads where the protests took place. A heavy police presence was also evident in Beijing, where police cars were parked on eerily quiet streets Monday night in the center of the capital where protesters had gathered the night before.
State media did not report directly on the demonstrations, but doubled down on efforts to zero out the virus, which one newspaper on Sunday called the “most scientifically effective” approach.