Following a fire that claimed the lives of 10 people in an apartment building in Urumqi, protests against COVID regulations in China appear to have gotten worse.
Thousands of people demonstrated against restrictions and remembered the victims on Shanghai’s streets. There were numerous cries for President Xi Jinping to step down.
At least three persons were observed being loaded into police cars by the BBC.
The mortality toll from the fire has been attributed to the lockdown of apartment buildings.
Chinese authorities dispute that it was the reason, although late on Friday, Urumqi officials did issue an extraordinary apology and promised to “establish order” by gradually removing restrictions.
Some protesters were seen burning candles and placing flowers for the victims at the demonstration in Shanghai, China’s largest metropolis and a major financial center.
Slogans like “Xi Jinping, step down” and “Communist party, step down” could be heard being shouted by others. Others had white flags that were empty.
Such demands are uncommon in China, where criticizing the president or the administration directly can result in severe repercussions.
One protester told the BBC that seeing people on the streets left him feeling “shocked and a bit delighted,” adding that it was the first time he had ever witnessed such widespread discontent in China.
He claimed that lockdowns had prevented him from visiting his ill mother, who was receiving cancer treatment, and had left him feeling “sad, furious, and helpless.”
When police officers were asked how they felt about the protests, the response was “the same as you,” a female protester told the BBC. But they “wear their uniforms so they’re doing their job,” she added.
Covid protests widen in China after Urumqi fire https://t.co/7U6O7g3Nxs
— Boabeng Kwadwo Gerrald (@bhraquajuo) November 27, 2022
A demonstrator told the news agency Associated Press that two of his friends had been pepper sprayed, and that one of his friends had been physically assaulted by police there.
Though the situation in the area had calmed by Sunday morning, the BBC saw a heightened police presence in the area of the protest, with several dozen police officers, private security guards, and plain-clothed police officers on the streets.
Elsewhere, photos and videos emerged online of students holding vigils for the Urumqi fire victims and launching protests at universities in Beijing and Nanjing.
Hundreds of people took part in one such demonstration at Tsinghua University in the capital, one student told the AFP news agency.
The group held up blank sheets of paper – an act that has become a symbol of defiance against Chinese censorship – and were filmed chanting songs in support of freedom and democracy.
Videos of the protests are difficult to independently verify, but many of them show an unusually explicit and outspoken criticism of the government and its leader.
The Urumqi fire was a nightmare scenario for many Chinese who have come under widespread restrictions in recent months – locked in one’s apartments with no way to escape, according to some accounts. Authorities have disputed this, but it has not stopped public outrage and anxiety from spreading.
It has become the latest tipping point in mounting frustration. Millions are weary of three years of movement restrictions and daily Covid tests. The anger has spread to all corners of China, from major cities to far-flung regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, and galvanized every part of society including young university students, factory workers, and ordinary citizens.
As this anger grows, protests against Covid measures have become an increasingly common sight. But even this weekend’s demonstrations are unusual in this new normal, both in their numbers and the directness of their criticism of the government and President Xi Jinping.
Not so long ago, it was considered inconceivable that hundreds of people would take to the streets to demand President Xi’s resignation. But with a recent shockingly dramatic protest on a bridge in Beijing, a standard seems to have been set for the expression of more outspoken and acerbic opposition.
Others have chosen to wave the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem, whose lyrics encourage the populace to “stand up, rise up” and espouse revolutionary ideas. It’s a display of patriotism that might potentially be interpreted as a strong statement of support for fellow Chinese who are suffering as a result of Mr. Xi’s zero-Covid policy as well as a call to action.
The demonstrations are the most recent in a growing string of protests against China’s zero-COvid policies that have also grown more outspoken in their criticism of the administration and President Xi.
Due in part to China’s relatively low vaccination rates and efforts to safeguard the elderly, the zero-Covid plan is the last of its sort among the major economies of the world.
Snap lockdowns have angered people all around the nation, and more general Covid restrictions have sparked recent violent protests from Zhengzhou to Guangzhou.
China’s case numbers this week reached all-time highs since the pandemic started, despite the strict measures.