From Shanghai to Beijing, protests have erupted across China in a rare show of dissent against the ruling Communist Party, fueled by anger over the country’s increasingly costly zero-Covid policy.
As the number of demonstrations increased over the weekend in multiple major cities, so did the range of grievances, with some calling for more democracy and freedom.
Out of thousands of protesters, hundreds have even called for the removal of China’s leader Xi Jinping, who for nearly three years has overseen a strategy of mass testing, brute force lockdowns, enforced quarantine and digital tracking that has resulted in devastating human death. . and economic costs.
Here’s what we know.
The protests were provoked last Thursday by a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the westernmost region of Xinjiang. The blaze killed at least 10 people and injured nine in an apartment building – sparking public anger after videos of the incident appeared to show firefighters were unable to reach victims due to lockdown measures.
The city had been under lockdown for more than 100 days, with residents unable to leave the region and many forced to stay at home.
Videos showed residents of Urumqi marching to a government building on Friday and chanting for the end of the lockdown. The following morning, the local government said it would lift the lockdown in stages, but did not give a clear timetable or comment on the protests.
That failed to quell public anger and protests quickly spread beyond Xinjiang, with residents of cities and universities across China also taking to the streets.
Why protesters in China hold up white paper
Protests have been reported across the country.
So far, CNN has verified demonstrations in at least 16 locations across the country, including two of China’s largest cities, the capital Beijing and the financial center Shanghai.
In Shanghai, hundreds of people gathered for a candlelight vigil on Urumqi Road, named after the city of Xinjiang, on Saturday to mourn the victims of the blaze. Many held up blank sheets of white paper – a symbolic protest against censorship – and chanted, “Need human rights, need freedom.”
Hear protesters in China calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation
Some also called for Xi to “step down” and sang The Internationale, a socialist anthem used for more than a century as a call to action in demonstrations around the world. It was also used during pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square before a crackdown by armed forces in 1989.
China’s zero-Covid policy has been felt especially acutely in Shanghai, where a two-month lockdown earlier this year left many without access to food, medical care or other basic necessities – sparking deep public outrage.
By Sunday evening, mass demonstrations had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, where thousands of residents called not only for an end to Covid restrictions but, more remarkably, for political freedoms. Residents of some closed-off neighborhoods tore down barriers and took to the streets.
Protests also took place on campuses, including the prestigious institutions of Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Communication University of China, Nanjing.
In recent days, vigils and demonstrations have also been held elsewhere in the world in solidarity with those on the mainland, including London and Sydney.
In Hong Kong, where a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 has been used to quell dissent, dozens of people gathered in the city’s central district for a vigil on Monday night. Some held blank sheets of paper, while others left flowers and held signs in memory of those killed in the Urumqi fire.
Public protest is extremely rare in China, where the Communist Party has tightened its grip on all aspects of life, launched a massive crackdown on dissent, wiped out much of civil society, and built a high-tech surveillance state.
The mass surveillance system is even stricter in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is accused of holding up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in camps where former detainees have alleged physical and sexual abuse.
A damning United Nations report in September described the region’s “invasive” surveillance network, with police databases containing hundreds of thousands of biometric data files such as facial and eye scans.
China has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights violations in the region.
While protests do happen in China, they rarely happen on this scale, nor do they target the central government and the country’s leader as directly, said Maria Repnikova, an associate professor at Georgia State University who studies Chinese politics and media. studies.
“This is a different kind of protest than the more localized protests we’ve seen over the past two decades, which tend to focus their claims and demands on local officials and very focused social and economic issues,” she said. Instead, this time the protests have expanded to include “the sharper expressions of political grievances alongside concerns over Covid-19 lockdowns.”
There have been growing signs in recent months that the public is running out of patience with zero-Covid, after nearly three years of economic hardship and disruption to everyday life.
Isolated protest bombs erupted in October, with anti-Zero Covid slogans appearing on the walls of public bathrooms and in several Chinese cities, inspired by a banner hung by a lone protester on a Beijing overpass just days before Xi secured a third term in power.
Larger protests took place in Guangzhou earlier in November, with residents ignoring lockdown orders to knock down barriers and cheer as they took to the streets.
While protests in several parts of China appear to have been peaceful over the weekend, some received a stronger response from authorities.
The protests in Shanghai on Saturday led to scuffles between protesters and police, with arrests made in the early hours of the morning. Undeterred, protesters turned back on Sunday, where they met with a more aggressive response — videos show chaotic scenes of police shoving, dragging and beating protesters.
At one point, hundreds of policemen formed a human wall to close off the main roads, with a loudspeaker telling protesters to leave.
The videos have since been removed from the Chinese internet due to censorship.
BBC journalist Edward Lawrence was arrested in Shanghai on Sunday night, with a BBC spokesman claiming he was “punched and kicked by police” while covering the protests. He has since been released.
On Monday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry acknowledged Lawrence’s arrest, claiming he had not identified himself as a journalist before being detained.
The spokesman also deflected questions about the protests, telling a reporter who asked whether the widespread expressions of public anger would lead China to end zero-Covid: “What you mentioned does not reflect what is really happening. has happened.”
He also claimed that social media posts linking the fire in Xinjiang to the Covid policy had “ulterior motives”, and that authorities have “made adjustments based on the reality on the ground”. When asked about protesters calling for Xi to resign, he replied, “I am not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
In Xinjiang, top party officials convened a rally on Saturday — a day after protests broke out in Urumqi — where they called on authorities to “act strictly” against rumours, incitement to incidents and violent resistance to measures to contain the epidemic, it said. the state media. .
Without citing the protests, Beijing’s municipal government on Sunday banned blocking the entrances to gated residential complexes, saying they must remain clear for emergency services.
On Monday, Shanghai authorities saw high barriers set up along the road where protests had taken place.
State-run media did not report directly on the demonstrations, but redoubled their focus on zero-Covid, with a newspaper on Sunday calling it “the most scientifically effective” approach.