Rare protests against China’s strict “coronavirus-free” policies continued in Shanghai and Beijing on Sunday afternoon, which spread across the country after a deadly apartment fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi on Friday.
Crowds stood and were filmed as police began pushing away people who had gathered on the same street in Shanghai where police forcibly cleared hundreds just hours earlier.
They shouted, “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom!” According to a witness who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.
Since Friday, people have been demonstrating across China, as street demonstrations are rare. Public anger has boiled over after 10 people died in an apartment building fire in Urumqi that many believe was caused by excessive lockdown measures that delayed rescue efforts.
A social media outlet that translates Chinese media reports into English posted on Twitter a video of the fire.
A crowd-sourced list, posted on social media by the China editor at Singapore-based Initium Media, said there were demonstrations at 50 universities.
The videos posted on social media, which evaded censorship, were said to have been filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south, Beijing in the north and at least five other cities.
They showed protesters sparring with police in white Covid protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighbourhoods.
On the Internet, behind-the-scenes videos quickly appeared. Some of the most shared videos came from Shanghai, which was hit by a devastating lockdown in the spring as people struggled to secure groceries and medicine and were forcibly moved into a central quarantine.
In the dark wee hours of Sunday, demonstrators chanted “Xi Jinping! Get down! CCP! Step down,” referring to the president and the ruling Communist Party.
One protester who cheered along with the crowd confirmed to the Associated Press that people were shouting for the removal of Xi Jinping, China’s leader — words few thought would have been said out loud in one of China’s largest cities.
Hundreds of protesters gathered along a street in Shanghai from midnight on Saturday. They split into two different sections of the Middle Urumqi Road. There was a quieter group and they brought out candles, flowers and banners in honor of those who died in the apartment fire. The other said a protester, who asked not to be named for fear of arrest, was more active, chanting slogans and singing the national anthem.
The energy was encouraging, the protester said. People have called for an official apology for the deaths in the Urumqi fire. Others discussed the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, in which the ruling Communist Party ordered troops to shoot student demonstrators. An ethnic Uyghur shared his experiences of discrimination and police violence.
“Everyone thinks that Chinese people are afraid to go out and protest, and they don’t have any courage,” said the protester, who said it was his first time demonstrating. “Actually in my heart, I also thought about this. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was making everyone very brave.”
At first the scene was peaceful. Around 3 am, it turned violent. The police began cordoning off the protesters and dispersing the first group, which was more active, before they came to the second group that brought flowers. The goal was to keep people off the main street.
A protester who gave only his last name, Gao, said one of his friends was beaten by police, and two were sprayed with pepper. He said the police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process, and left the demonstration barefoot.
The protesters chanted slogans including “(we) don’t want PCR (tests), but we want freedom,” Zhao says, referring to the one-man protest in Beijing ahead of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in Beijing in October.
After three years of harsh lockdowns that left people confined to their homes for weeks at a time, the Xinjiang fire appears to have finally broken the Chinese people’s ability to withstand harsh measures.
Its citizens have praised China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 through strict lockdowns and mass testing, arguing it is reducing deaths at a time when other countries are reeling from devastating waves of infections. Xi viewed the approach as an example of the Chinese regime’s superiority compared to the West and especially the United States, which has politicized the use of masks and struggled to enforce widespread lockdowns.
In recent weeks, that situation has changed as tragedies have accumulated under the excessive enforcement of “zero COVID.”
The demonstrators said that hundreds of policemen in Shanghai queued and formed clusters around the demonstrators in a strategy to remove them. Through an effort of a few hours, the police divided the protesters into smaller groups, and removed them from Urumqi Road.
By 5 am on Sunday, the police managed to clear the crowd.
The protester, who asked not to be named, said he saw several people being taken away, forced into pickup trucks by police, but that he could not identify them. An online crowdsourcing attempt has so far identified six people who were taken, based on photos and videos from the night, as well as information by those who knew those arrested. Among the detainees is a young woman known only by her pseudonym “He is the Little One”.
Posters calling for more action circulated online in Shanghai and Chengdu, a major city in southwest China, on Sunday night. The Shanghai protest demanded the release of those who were taken away.
In Beijing, students of Tsinghua University, the country’s top college, staged a demonstration Sunday afternoon in front of one of the school’s cafeterias. Three young women initially stood with a simple message of condolence for the victims of the Urumqi apartment fire, according to a witness who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
The students shouted “freedom of speech” and sang the international. The school’s deputy party secretary arrived at the protest, promising a school-wide discussion.