Hundreds of protesters and police clashed in Shanghai as protests against China’s strict Covid restrictions flared for a third day and spread to several cities, in the biggest test for President Xi Jinping since securing a historic third term in office.
The wave of civil disobedience has been unprecedented in mainland China over the past decade as frustration over Xi’s signature zero-Covid policy mounts nearly three years into the pandemic.
Protests sparked by a deadly apartment fire last week in the far west of the country erupted in cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou on Sunday.
On Monday, China reported a new daily record of new Covid-19 infections, with 40,347 cases. The cities of Guangzhou and Chongqing, with thousands of cases, are struggling to contain outbreaks. Hundreds of infections were also registered in several other cities in the country.
Chinese stocks fell sharply as investors raised concerns about the impact of the protests on the world’s second-largest economy.
In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totaling at least 1,000 people gathered along the Chinese capital’s 3rd Ring Road, near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.
On Sunday, police in Shanghai had a heavy presence on Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi, and where a candlelight vigil the day before turned into protests.
“We just want our basic human rights. We cannot leave our homes without undergoing a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far,” said a 26-year-old demonstrator in Shanghai who declined to be identified.
“The people here are not violent, but the police arrest them for no reason. They tried to grab me, but the people around me grabbed me so hard and pulled me back so I could escape.”
On Sunday evening, hundreds of people gathered in the area. Some crowded with the police to disperse them. People held up blank sheets of paper in protest.
On Saturday, people in Shanghai chanted “No PCR tests, we want freedom!” followed by rounds of repeated calls for “Freedom! Freedom!”
Protests erupted Friday in Urumqi, the regional capital of far western Xinjiang region, after footage of a residential building fire that killed at least 10 people the day before led to allegations that a Covid lockdown was a factor. was in the death toll. .
Urumqi officials abruptly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny that Covid measures had hindered the escape and rescue. Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have endured one of the country’s longest lockdowns, not allowed to leave their homes for up to 100 days.
Late Sunday, a BBC journalist was seen on camera being “punched and kicked by police” before being arrested in Shanghai. Footage posted on social media showed Edward Lawrence being dragged to the ground in handcuffs, while another video said, “Call the consulate now”.
A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC is deeply concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed while covering the Shanghai protests.
“He was detained for several hours before being released,” the spokesman said, adding that he had covered the protests as an accredited journalist.
Lawrence, a senior journalist and cameraman for the BBC’s China desk, tweeted from the site of the protest in Shanghai on Sunday morning UK time.
He wrote: “I am at the scene of last night’s extraordinary anti-Covid zero protest in Shanghai. Many people stand here quietly watching. Lots of police.”
In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began three years ago, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents taking to the streets, breaching metal barricades, toppling Covid test tents and demanding an end to lockdowns.
Other cities that have seen public discord include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents toppled Covid staff tents and vandalized testing booths on Saturday, social media reports show.
Widespread public outcry is rare in China, where space for dissent has all but been eliminated under Xi, leaving citizens to express their frustration mainly on social media, where they play cat-and-mouse with censorship.
China is sticking to Xi’s zero-Covid policy even as much of the world has lifted most restrictions. While the number of cases in China is low by global standards, it has been at record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday, sparking even more lockdowns in cities across the country. Beijing has defended the policy as lifesaving and necessary to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.
Frustration boils just over a month after Xi secured a third term at the head of China’s communist party, and much of the anger is directed at China’s leader.
In a video posted on social media, a protester accused Xi of locking people up and locking them in their homes.
“Xi Jinping resigns, Communist Party resigns,” he said in the widely shared post.
“This will put great pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one of the responses will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters,” said Dan Mattingly, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University.
Still, he said, the unrest is far from that of 1989, when the protests culminated in the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
He added that as long as Xi had the Chinese elite and military on his side, he would not run any significant risk to his grip on power.
Reuters contributed to this report