Rare protests against China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies continued in Shanghai and Beijing on Sunday afternoon, which had spread across the country after a deadly fire at an apartment in the northwestern city of Urumqi on Friday.
The crowd rose and filmed as police began pushing people who had gathered on the same street in Shanghai where police forcibly removed hundreds just hours earlier.
They shouted, “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom!” according to a witness who declined to be named for fear of retaliation.
Since Friday, people have been protesting across China, where street demonstrations are extremely rare. Public anger erupted after 10 people died in an apartment building fire in Urumqi that many believe was caused by excessive lockdown measures that delayed relief efforts.
A social media post translating Chinese media reports into English on Twitter posted a video of the fire.
A crowdsourced list, posted on social media by the Singapore-based Chinese publisher of Initium Media, says there have been demonstrations at 50 universities.
The videos posted on social media that managed to evade censorship were reportedly filmed in Nanjing to the east, Guangzhou to the south, Beijing to the north and at least five other cities.
They showed protesters arguing with police in white protective suits against Covid or dismantling barricades used to isolate neighborhoods.
Online, videos of the scenes quickly surfaced. Some of the most shared videos were from Shanghai, which had suffered a devastating lockdown in the spring in which people struggled to secure food and medicines and were forcibly taken into centralized quarantine.
In the early dark hours of Sunday, standing on the street named after a Xinjiang city where at least 10 people had just died in an apartment fire, protesters chanted “Xi Jinping! Get off! CCP! Resign,” referring to the president and the ruling Communist Party.
A protester who chanted with the crowd confirmed to the Associated Press that people were shouting for the removal of Xi Jinping, China’s leader – words many never thought would be spoken aloud in one of the country’s biggest cities. China.
Hundreds of protesters had gathered along a Shanghai street since midnight on Saturday. They split into two different sections of Middle Urumqi Road. There was one group who were more calm and brought candles, flowers and placards honoring those who died in the apartment fire. The other, said a protester who declined 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 demanded an official apology for the deaths in the Urumqi fire. Others discussed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in which the ruling Communist Party ordered troops to fire on student protesters. An ethnic Uyghur individual shared his experiences of discrimination and police violence.
“Everyone thinks the Chinese are afraid to go out and protest, that they don’t have any courage,” said the protester who said it was his first time demonstrating. “Actually in my heart I thought about this too. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.”
At first the scene was quiet. Around 3 in the morning, he got violent. Police began surrounding the protesters and dispersed the first more active group before they arrived for the second one who had brought flowers. The goal was to move people off the main road.
A protester who gave only his last name, Zhao, said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper sprayed. He said the police stamped on his toes as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process and left the protest barefoot.
Zhao says protesters chanted slogans including “(We) don’t want PCR (testing), but we want freedom,” referring to a one-man protest in Beijing ahead of the 20th Communist Party Congress in Beijing in October.
After three years of harsh lockdowns that have left people confined to their homes for weeks, the Xinjiang fire appears to have finally shattered the Chinese public’s ability to tolerate the harsh measures.
China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 with stringent lockdowns and mass testing has been hailed by its own citizens as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections. Xi had held up the approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system over the West and especially the United States, which had politicized the use of masks and had difficulty enforcing widespread lockdowns.
In recent weeks, this attitude has changed as tragedies have accumulated due to the excessive application of “zero COVID”.
In Shanghai, hundreds of police lined up, forming groups around protesters in a strategy to eliminate them, protesters said. With the effort of a few hours, the police divided the protesters into smaller groups, moving them off Urumqi Road.
By 5am on Sunday, the police had managed to clear out the crowd.
The protester, who declined to reveal his name, said he saw several people taken away, forced by police into vans, but he could not identify them. An online crowdsourcing effort has so far identified six people abducted, based on images and video from the night, as well as information from those who knew the detainees. Among those arrested is a young woman known only by the nickname “Little He”.
Posters circulated online Sunday evening calling for more action in Shanghai and in Chengdu, a major city in southwest China. The Shanghai protest has called for the release of those who have been taken away.
In Beijing, students from the nation’s top college, Tsinghua University, held a rally on Sunday afternoon in front of one of the school’s cafeterias. Three young women were initially present with a simple message of condolences for the victims of the Urumqi apartment fire, according to a witness, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation.
The students shouted “freedom of speech” and sang the Internationale. The deputy party secretary of the school arrived at the protest, promising to hold a school-wide discussion.