- An unprecedented wave of civil disobedience under Xi Jinping
- Protesters hold vigils in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities
- Anger over Urumqi factory fire and Covid restrictions
SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Nov 27 (Reuters) – Shanghai demonstrators carried blank sheets of paper and shouted slogans early on Sunday, as widespread protests broke out in China against strict Covid-19 restrictions following a deadly fire in the country’s west. Anger.
The wave of civil disobedience, which has included protests in cities including Beijing and Urumqi, where the fire occurred, is unprecedented in mainland China since Xi Jinping took power a decade ago.
In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, residents gathered on Wulumuki Road – named after Urumqi – on Saturday night for a candlelight vigil that turned into a protest early Sunday morning.
While a large group of police watched, the crowd held blank sheets of paper as a symbol of protest against censorship. Then, they said, “Lift the lockdown for Urumqi, lift the lockdown for Xinjiang, lift the lockdown for all of China!” they shouted, in a video that went viral on social media.
Later, a large group chanted “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping,” according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest against the country’s leadership.
Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
Later on Sunday, police maintained a heavy presence on Wulumuki Road and cordoned off surrounding streets, making arrests, sparking protests from onlookers, according to unverified videos seen by Reuters.
In the evening, hundreds of people again gathered near a garden, some holding blank sheets of paper.
“I am here because of the fire in Urumqi. I am here for freedom. Winter is coming. We need our freedom,” one protester told Reuters.
At Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, dozens of people staged a peaceful protest against COVID restrictions as they sang the national anthem, according to pictures and videos posted on social media.
In a video that Reuters could not verify, a Tsinghua University student called on a cheering crowd to speak. “If we dare not speak out for fear of slander, our people will be disappointed in us. As a Tsinghua University student, I will regret it for the rest of my life.”
A student who witnessed the Tsinghua protest described to Reuters that he was shocked by the protest at one of China’s most elite universities and Xi’s alma mater.
“People there were very emotional and it was interesting to see,” said the student, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
A fire at a high-rise building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region, killed 10 people on Thursday, and crowds took to the streets Friday evening to chant “end the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air, according to unverified videos on social media.
Many netizens believe the building was partially locked so residents could not escape in time, which city officials denied. In Urumqi, home to 4 million people, some have been locked up for up to 100 days.
China has stuck to Xi’s signature zero-covid policy even as most of the world lifted restrictions. Although low by global standards, China’s cases have hit record levels for several days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday.
China defends the life-saving policy and is necessary to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. Officials have vowed to continue despite growing public pushback and its growing economic toll.
China’s economy hit a broader slowdown in October, with factory output growing slower than expected and retail sales falling for the first time in five months, underscoring slowing demand at home and abroad.
Adding to a string of weak data in recent days, China reported on Sunday that industrial firms’ overall profits fell further in the January-October period, with 22 of China’s 41 main industrial sectors showing declines.
The world’s second-largest economy faces other headwinds, including global recession risks and an asset slump.
Widespread public protest is rare in China, where space for dissent has been removed under Xi, forcing citizens to often vent on social media, where they play cat-and-mouse with censors.
Frustration is simmering just a month after Xi was sworn in for a third term at the helm of China’s Communist Party.
“This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. A response is more likely to be repressive, and they will arrest and prosecute some dissidents,” said Dan Mattingly, assistant professor of political science at Yale University.
However, he said the unrest seen in 1989, when protests culminated in a bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square, was a far cry. He added that as long as Xi has China’s elite and military on his side, he will face no meaningful risk to his hold on power.
This weekend, Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Ma Xingrui called on the region to step up security maintenance and curb “illegal violent rejection of Covid-prevention measures.”
Xinjiang officials also said that public transport services will gradually resume in Urumqi from Monday.
‘We don’t want health codes’
Other cities that have seen public protests include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents tore down the tents of COVID workers and smashed checkpoints on Saturday, social media posts showed. Protesters said they were locked down even though none tested positive.
Candlelight processions were held for the victims of the landslides at universities in cities like Nanjing and Beijing.
Shanghai’s 25 million people were locked down for two months earlier this year, sparking anger and protests.
Chinese authorities have since tried to be more targeted in their Covid restrictions, an effort that has been challenged by a surge in infections as the country faces its first winter with the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard, Yu Lun Tian, Eduardo Baptista and Liz Lee in Beijing and Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz, David Stanway, Casey Hall and Engen Thom in Shanghai and the Shanghai newsroom; By Tony Munro; Editing: William Mallard, Kim Coghill, Edwina Gibbs and Raisa Kasolowski
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