Rare protest against 'zero-COVID' policy erupts in central Beijing

Kyodo News

Posted at Nov 28 2022 04:58 PM

Protesters wave blank white pieces of paper during a protest triggered in Beijing, China, on November 27, 2022. Mark R. Cristino, EPA-EFE
Protesters wave blank white pieces of paper during a protest triggered in Beijing, China, on November 27, 2022. Mark R. Cristino, EPA-EFE

About 1,000 people marched in central Beijing through the early hours of Monday in protest against the nation's radical "zero-COVID" policy involving lockdowns, with some openly calling for an end to "dictatorship" in criticism of President Xi Jinping.

It was the first major demonstration in the capital since Xi came to power in 2012. Similar protests erupted in Shanghai and other cities in China over the weekend, according to witnesses and videos shared on social media, reflecting growing public anger with prolonged heavy COVID restrictions amid a spike in infections.

The rare protest occurred in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, where many foreign companies and embassies are located. Citizens gathered Sunday at a riverside square where a flower stand was set up to mourn victims of a deadly fire Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of the far-western Xinjiang region.

Many of the nationwide rallies were triggered by the fire that killed 10 people, as well as subsequent demonstrations in Urumqi, with speculation growing that evacuation and rescue efforts may have been hampered by lockdown measures.

Some Beijing protesters shouted, "No more PCR tests, we want freedom." As participants began to march, many others joined holding up blank sheets of paper -- a symbol of protest against authorities -- and chanted slogans such as "End the lockdown."

In China, people are required to take COVID tests frequently. Those in locked-down areas are banned from leaving their homes and often find it difficult to procure adequate food and everyday items.

Some participants of the Beijing rally also complained about a lack of votes and press freedom in China.

Many police officers and vehicles were deployed at the scene, blocking nearby roads. Although they tried to detain some of the participants, triggering calls for release, no violent clashes or detentions were confirmed.

About five hours after the start of the demonstration, crowds were dispersed by police who insisted the rally had obstructed traffic.

A woman in her 30s who took part in the protest said, "We have no dignity as we are just obliged to follow government requirements. But as we work hard and pay taxes, we should be protagonists of the country."

Meanwhile, the BBC said Sunday its journalist Ed Lawrence was detained for several hours while covering the protest in Shanghai and that he was "beaten and kicked by the police."

The British broadcaster said in a statement it is "extremely concerned" about the treatment of its journalist.

"We have had no official explanation or apology from the Chinese authorities," the BBC said, adding it does not consider a claim by the officials that the arrest was made to prevent him from contracting the virus from the crowds a credible explanation.

As of Sunday, China had logged daily coronavirus cases of some 38,800 in the mainland, according to the National Health Commission, with the figure hitting the highest level for the fifth straight day since it began releasing data in the spring of 2020.

Human rights group Amnesty International urged the Chinese government not to detain peaceful protesters and to listen to their calls.

"Authorities must let people express their thoughts freely and protest peacefully without fear of retaliation," the group's Deputy Regional Director Hana Young said in a statement.

"People have been incredibly patient with lockdown measures but authorities must not abuse emergency policies. These unprecedented protests show that people are at the end of their tolerance for excessive COVID-19 restrictions," Young said.