SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Protests in China against severe COVID-19 restrictions spread to Shanghai on Sunday, where demonstrators also gathered at one of Beijing’s most prestigious universities after a deadly fire in the country’s far west sparked widespread anger.
The wave of civil disobedience, which has included protests in Urumqi where the fire occurred as well as elsewhere in Beijing and other cities, has reached levels not seen in mainland China since Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago.
In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, residents gathered Saturday night on Wololuki Road – named after Urumqi – for a candlelight vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.
As a large group of police looked on, the crowd held up white sheets of paper – a symbol of protest against censorship. Later, they shouted, “Unlock Urumqi, unlock Xinjiang, unlock all of China!” , according to a video circulating on social media.
At another point, a large group began shouting, “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.
The police at times tried to disperse the crowd.
A large crowd gathered on the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing, according to photos and videos posted on social media. Some people also carried white papers.
Thursday’s fire that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, brought crowds onto the street Friday night, chanting “Stop the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air, according to videos on social media.
Many netizens speculated that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked, which city officials denied. In Urumqi, a city of 4 million people, some people have been locked up for up to 100 days.
China has stuck to Xi’s signature policy of not spreading the coronavirus, even as much of the world is trying to come to terms with the coronavirus. While cases in China are low by global standards, they have been at record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday.
China defends the policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. Officials vowed to continue to do so despite growing public opposition and mounting losses on the world’s second-largest economy.
Large-scale public protest is extremely rare in China, where space for dissent has been decimated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent on social media, playing a cat-and-mouse game with censorship.
Frustration is boiling over a month after Xi secured a third term at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party.
“This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one response will be crackdown, and they will arrest and prosecute some of the protesters,” said Dan Mattingly, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University.
However, he said, the unrest is far from that of 1989, when protests culminated in a bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. He added that as long as Xi stands by the Chinese elite and the military, he will not face any real danger to his grip on power.
This weekend, Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Ma Shengrui called on the region to step up security maintenance and curb “illegal violent rejection of COVID prevention measures.”
Xinjiang officials also said public transport services will gradually resume from Monday in Urumqi.
‘We don’t want health codes’
Other cities that saw public opposition include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents on Saturday overturned the tents of Covid staff and smashed testing booths, social media posts showed. Protesters said they were placed under lockdown although no one was injured.
Candlelight vigils for the victims of Urumqi were held at universities in cities such as Nanjing and Beijing.
Videos from Shanghai showed crowds confronting police and chanting “serve the people”, “we want freedom” and “we don’t want health codes”, referring to mobile apps that must be screened to enter public spaces across China.
The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
The city’s 25 million people were placed under a two-month lockdown earlier this year, sparking outrage and protests.
Chinese authorities have since sought to be more targeted in their COVID restrictions, an effort that has been met by a surge in infections as the country faces its first winter with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
In Beijing on Saturday, some residents under lockdown were able to successfully confront and pressure local officials to lift restrictions ahead of schedule.
One video shared with Reuters showed Beijingers walking through an uncharted part of the capital on Saturday, chanting “Stop the lockdown!”
The Beijing government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard, Yu Lun Tian, Eduardo Baptista and Liz Li in Beijing, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Newsroom Shanghai; Written by Tony Monroe. Editing by William Mallard, Kim Coghill, and Edwina Gibbs
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