Hundreds of demonstrators in Shanghai shouted and jostled with police on Sunday evening as protests over China’s stringent COVID restrictions flared for a third day following a deadly apartment fire in the country’s far west.
The wave of civil disobedience, which has spread to other cities including Beijing, is unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago and comes amid mounting frustration over his signature zero-COVID policy.
China has spent nearly three years living with some of the strictest COVID curbs in the world.
The fire at a residential high-rise building in the city of Urumqi triggered protests after videos of the incident posted on social media led to accusations that lockdown were a factor in the death toll.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny COVID measures had hampered escape and rescue. Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.
On Sunday in Shanghai, police kept a heavy presence on Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi, and where a candlelight vigil the day before turned into protests.
By evening hundreds of people gathered in the area.
Some jostled with police trying to disperse them. People held up blank sheets of paper as an expression of protest.
One Reuters witness saw at least seven people taken away by police.
“We just want our basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far,” said a 26-year-old protester who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.
“The people here aren’t violent, but the police are arresting them for no reason. They tried to grab me but the people all around me grabbed my arms so hard and pulled me back so I could escape.”
Another protestor, Shaun Xiao, said: “I’m here because I love my country, but I don’t love my government…I want to be able to go out freely, but I can’t. Our COVID-19 policy is a game and is not based on science or reality.”
On Saturday, the vigil in Shanghai for victims of the apartment fire turned into a protest against COVID curbs, with the crowd chanting calls for lockdowns to be lifted. One large group chanted
“Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping”, according to witnesses and videos posted on social media, in a rare public protest against the country’s leadership.
On Sunday at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, dozens of people held a peaceful protest against COVID restrictions during which they sang the national anthem, according to images and videos posted on social media.
One student who saw the Tsinghua protest described to Reuters feeling taken aback by the protest at one China’s most elite universities, and Xi’s alma mater.
“People there were very passionate, the sight of it was impressive,” the student said, declining to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.
In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began three years ago, hundreds of residents took to the streets on Sunday, smashing through metal barricades, overturning COVID testing tents and demanding an end to lockdowns, according to videos on social media that could not be independently verified.
Thursday’s fire that killed 10 people in an apartment block in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, saw crowds there take to the street on Friday evening, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air, according to unverified videos on social media.
China has stuck with Xi’s zero-COVID policy even as much of the world has lifted most restrictions. While low by global standards, China’s cases have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday.
China defends the policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting economic toll.
China’s economy suffered a broad slowdown in October as factory output grew more slowly than expected and retail sales fell for the first time in five months, underscoring faltering demand at home and abroad.
Adding to a raft of weak data in recent days, China reported on Sunday that industrial firms saw overall profits fall further in the January-October period, with 22 of China’s 41 major industrial sectors showing a decline.
The world’s second-largest economy is also facing other headwinds including a global recession risks and a property downturn.
Widespread public protest is extremely rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent on social media, where they play cat-and-mouse with censors.
Frustration is boiling just over a month after Xi secured a third term at the helm of China’s Communist Party.
“This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one response will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters,” said Dan Mattingly, assistant professor of political science at Yale University.
Still, he said, the unrest is far from that seen in 1989, when protests culminated in the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. He added that as long as Xi had China’s elite and the military on his side, he would not face any meaningful risk to his hold on power.
This weekend, Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Ma Xingrui called for the region to step up security maintenance and curb the “illegal violent rejection of COVID-prevention measures”.
Xinjiang officials have also said public transport services will gradually resume from Monday in Urumqi.
Other cities that have seen public dissent include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents on Saturday upturned COVID staff tents and smashed testing booths, posts on social media showed. Protesters said they were put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive.
Candlelight vigils for the Urumqi victims also took place at universities in Nanjing and Beijing.
Since Shanghai’s 25 million residents were put under two-month lock-down early this year, Chinese authorities have sought to be more targeted in their COVID curbs, an effort that has been challenged by the surge in infections as the country faces its first winter with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.