- An unprecedented wave of civil disobedience under President Xi
- Frustration mounted over Xi’s policy of not spreading the coronavirus
- An apartment fire in Urumqi last Thursday killed 10
- Vigils are turning into protests in cities including Beijing and Shanghai
- Distinguished Peking University students stage a protest
SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Hundreds of demonstrators shouted in Shanghai and rallied with police on Sunday night as protests against China’s tough coronavirus restrictions erupted for a third day after a fire in an apartment in the far west of the country.
The wave of civil disobedience, which has spread to other cities including Beijing, is unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago, and comes amid growing frustration over his signing of a coronavirus non-spread policy.
China has spent nearly three years living with some of the strictest COVID restrictions in the world.
A high-rise apartment building fire in the city of Urumqi sparked protests after videos of the incident posted on social media led to accusations that the lockdown was a factor in the death toll.
Urumqi officials suddenly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny that coronavirus measures had impeded the escape and rescue. Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been living under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, banned from leaving their homes for up to 100 days.
On Sunday in Shanghai, police maintained a heavy presence on Wololuki Road, named after Urumqi, where the previous day’s candlelight vigil had turned into protests.
By evening, hundreds of people had gathered in the area.
Some of them crowded with the police trying to disperse them. People carried white papers as an expression of protest.
A Reuters witness saw at least seven people who were taken away by the police.
“We just want basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting tested. It was the incident in Xinjiang that pushed people so far,” said a 26-year-old protester who asked not to be identified due to sensitivity. from the topic.
“People here are not violent, but the police are arresting them for no reason. They tried to grab me but the people around me grabbed my arm really hard and pulled me back so I could escape.”
Another protester, Xun Xiao, said: “I’m here because I love my country, but I don’t like my government… I want to be able to go out freely, but I can’t. COVID-19 politics is a game and is not based on science or reality.”
On Saturday, a vigil in Shanghai for the victims of the apartment fire turned into a protest against COVID restrictions, as the crowd chanted calls for the lockdown to be lifted. A large group cheered
“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.
Urumqi, Beijing, and Wuhan
On Sunday, at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, dozens of people staged a peaceful protest against coronavirus restrictions, during which they sang the national anthem, according to photos and videos posted on social media.
One student who watched the Tsinghua protest described to Reuters feeling surprised by the protest at one of China’s most elite universities, Xi’an University.
“The people there were very excited and it was an impressive sight,” said the student, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
In the central city of Wuhan, where the epidemic began three years ago, hundreds of residents took to the streets on Sunday, smashing metal barriers, overturning coronavirus testing tents and demanding an end to lockdowns, according to videos on social media that have not been able to. They are independently verified.
Thursday’s fire that killed 10 people in an apartment 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 unverified videos on social media.
China has adhered to Xi’s policy of not spreading the coronavirus, even as most countries in the world have lifted most restrictions. 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 economic losses.
China’s economy suffered a broad-based slowdown in October, as factory output grew more slowly than expected, and retail sales fell for the first time in five months, underscoring sluggish demand at home and abroad.
Adding to a slew of weak data in recent days, China reported on Sunday that industrial firms saw a larger decline in overall profits in the January-October period, with 22 of China’s 41 major industrial sectors showing declines.
The world’s second largest economy is also facing other headwinds including risks of a global recession and a real estate downturn.
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 has the Chinese elite and the military on his side, 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.
Other cities that saw public dissent include Lanzhou in the northwest, social media posts showed, where on Saturday residents turned over tents of COVID staff and smashed testing booths. Protesters said they were placed under lockdown although no one was injured.
Candlelight vigils for the victims of Urumqi were also held at universities in Nanjing and Beijing.
Since 25 million Shanghainese were placed under a two-month lockdown early this year, Chinese authorities have sought to be more targeted on 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.
(This story has been corrected to say that the Urumqi fire was in a residential building, not a factory, in paragraphs 3 and 13)
(Reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard, Yu Lun Tian, Eduardo Baptista and Liz Li in Beijing, Brenda Goh, Josh Horowitz, David Stanaway, Casey Hall and Engin Tham in Shanghai and Newsroom Shanghai; Writing by Tony Munro; Editing by William Mallard, Kim Coghill, Edwina Gibbs and Raisa Kasuluski
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