Protests across China, as anger mounts over zero-COVID policy

Agence France-Presse reporters

Posted at Nov 27 2022 06:07 PM | Updated as of Nov 28 2022 12:06 AM

A woman under quarantine looks outside her window in a building with confirmed cases in Beijing, November 26, 2022. Wu Hao, EPA-EFE
A woman under quarantine looks outside her window in a building with confirmed cases in Beijing, November 26, 2022. Wu Hao, EPA-EFE

(2nd UPDATE) Hundreds of people took to the streets in Shanghai and Beijing on Sunday to protest against China's zero-Covid policy in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state.

China's hardline virus strategy is stoking public frustration, with many growing weary of snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns.

A deadly fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China's Xinjiang region, has become a fresh catalyst for public anger, with many blaming lengthy Covid lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts. Authorities deny the claims. 

On Sunday night, police clashed with groups of protestors in central Shanghai, an AFP reporter saw, as officers tried to move people away from the site of an earlier demonstration. 

A crowd had gathered on Wulumuqi street -- named after the Mandarin for Urumqi -- earlier in the day, with video showing protesters chanting "Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!" The video was widely shared on social media and geolocated by AFP. 

Police dispersed the demonstrators by morning but in the afternoon, hundreds gathered in the same area to hold what appeared to be a silent protest, an eyewitness told AFP.

Demonstrators holding blank pieces of paper symbolising censorship and white flowers stood silently at several intersections, the person said under condition of anonymity.

Social media videos from the area that appeared to be taken in the late afternoon showed the crowd chanting. 

Footage from several different angles showed a man holding a bouquet of yellow flowers being dragged into a police car at one intersection as onlookers shouted.

By evening, dozens of policemen in yellow high-vis jackets formed a thick line, cordoning off the streets where the protests had taken place. 

Their colleagues asked people to leave the area, but some still milled around, and AFP saw multiple people arrested. 

More officers subsequently arrived. 

A live stream on Instagram showed a wall of policemen closing in on a group of people from both sides of the street, forcing them to the pavements. 

A foreigner who wished to remain anonymous told AFP he had seen a standoff as police directed a crowd away from Wulumuqi street. 

"The police appeared to be looking for individuals suspected of leading the protests," he said. 

"The atmosphere was very tense, but there was also excitement and energy... Protestors directed their anger at the police and the party, using the 'step down!' refrain of the last few days."

On Sunday night a protest was taking place in central Beijing, an AFP reporter at the scene said. 

- University protests -
Earlier in the day, hundreds also rallied at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University to protest against lockdowns, one witness who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.

"At 11:30 am students started holding up signs at the entrance of the canteen, then more and more people joined," they said, estimating there were 200-300 people present, some holding blank bits of paper. 

Participants sang the national anthem and "the Internationale" -- a standard of the international communist movement -- and chanted "freedom will prevail" and "no to lockdowns, we want freedom", they said.

A video that appeared to be taken in the same location showed students shouting, "Democracy and the rule of law, freedom of expression", and was quickly taken down. 

Other vigils took place overnight at universities across China, including one at Tsinghua's neighbour Peking University, an undergraduate participant told AFP. 

Speaking anonymously as well for fear of repercussions, he said some anti-Covid slogans had been daubed on a wall in the university. 

Some of the words echoed a banner that was hung over a Beijing bridge just before the Communist Party Congress in October. 

"I heard people yelling: 'No to Covid tests, yes to freedom!'," he said, adding there were between 100 and 200 people there. 

Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper. 

Hashtags relating to the protest were censored on Weibo, and video platforms Duoyin and Kuaishou were scrubbed of footage. 

Videos from Xi'an, Guangzhou and Wuhan showing similar small protests also spread on social media. AFP was unable to verify the footage independently. 

- 'Lift lockdowns!' -
China reported 39,506 domestic Covid-19 cases Sunday, a record high but small compared to caseloads in the West at the height of the pandemic.

The protests come against a backdrop of mounting public frustration over China's zero-tolerance approach to the virus and follow sporadic rallies in other cities.

Hundreds of people massed outside Urumqi's government offices after the deadly fire, chanting: "Lift lockdowns!", footage partially verified by AFP shows. 

AFP verified the video by geolocating local landmarks but was unable to specify exactly when the protests occurred.

It is the latest in several high-profile cases where emergency services have been allegedly slowed down by Covid lockdowns, which have catalysed public opposition.

The Qatar World Cup has also proved a flashpoint, as scenes of maskless fans provoked outrage on social media. 

China's state broadcaster has started cutting close-ups of supporters and replacing them with shots of officials or players. 

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