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Protests erupt against China’s Covid lockdowns after Xinjiang fire

Protests erupt against China's Covid lockdowns after Xinjiang fire
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Protests erupted in cities and on campuses across China this weekend as frustrated and outraged citizens took to the streets in a breathtaking wave of demonstrations against the government’s “zero-Covid” policy and the leaders enforcing it.

Residents of Shanghai, China’s most populous city, gathered Saturday night and early Sunday, calling for the end of the pandemic lockdowns and chanting “We want freedom!” and “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock all of China!” according to witnesses at the event. In even more extraordinary scenes of public anger directed at the supreme leader, a group of protesters there chanted, “Xi Jinping, resign!” and “Communist Party, resign!”

“There were people everywhere,” said Chen, a 29-year-old Shanghai resident, who attended the vigil around 2 a.m. Sunday. “First people shouted to lift the lockdown in Xinjiang, and then it became, ‘Xi Jinping, resign, the Communist Party resign!'” he said, giving only his last name for security reasons.

The immediate trigger for the demonstrations, which could also be seen at universities in Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing on Saturday, was a deadly fire in Urumqi, on Thursday in the capital of Xinjiang in far northwest China. Ten people, including three children, died after firefighters couldn’t get close enough to a burning home. Local residents blamed lockdown-related measures for hampering rescue efforts.

Clashes erupted between protesters and police in Shanghai on Nov. On February 27, protests against China’s Covid restrictions flared up for a third day, spreading to several cities. (Video: Reuters)

Officials on Friday denied that Covid restrictions were a factor, saying the “ability of some residents to save themselves is too weak,” prompting more mockery and anger that swept Chinese social media platforms . Residents in Urumqi, one of the most tightly controlled cities in China following a broader crackdown on security forces, protested on Friday. Many waved China’s national flag and called for the lockdowns to be lifted completely.

This unrest spread. On Saturday, Shanghai residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on Wulumuqi Middle Road, named after Urumqi, which turned into a demonstration. Photos sent to the Washington Post by a photographer at the scene showed protesters holding up blank sheets – a symbolic defiance of the country’s pervasive censorship – and laying flowers and candles for the victims while police looked on.

One person held up notes with the number “10” written in Uyghur and Chinese in reference to the 10 victims in Urumqi. The crowd began passing the blank pages around.

“Everyone captured it,” said Meng, the photographer, who gave only his last name for security reasons. “Nobody said anything, but we all knew what it meant. Delete anything you want. You can’t censor what’s not said.”

Such demonstrations are extremely rare in China, where authorities are acting swiftly to stamp out all forms of dissent. Authorities are particularly suspicious of protests at universities, the scene of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that spread across the country and ended in a bloody crackdown and massacre around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

With record Covid cases, China is scrambling to close an immunity gap

Posters mocking “zero Covid” were removed at the Communication University of China in Nanjing on Saturday, prompting a student to stand for hours with a blank sheet of paper in protest. Hundreds of students joined in solidarity.

Some laid flowers on the ground to honor the burnt victims and chanted, “Rest In Peace.” Others sang the Chinese national anthem as well as the leftist anthem “The Internationale”. They shouted: “Long live the people!”

“I used to feel lonely, but yesterday everyone stood together,” said a 21-year-old photography student who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “I believe that we are all brave, brave enough to claim our rights, brave enough to criticize these mistakes, brave enough to speak our minds.”

“Students are like a spring that is depressed every day. Yesterday that source sprung up again,” he said.

Videos posted to social media on Sunday show crowds of students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University holding up blank slips of paper and chanting, “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression!” Through a loudspeaker, a young woman shouted, “If we fear of being arrested, I think our people will be disappointed in us.” As a Tsinghua student, I will regret this for the rest of my life.”

Crowds also gathered at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts and held up their phones as part of a vigil for those who died in Urumqi, according to social media posts. Other posts show fuzzy protest slogans on campuses in four cities and two provinces. Videos show crowds on the streets late Sunday in Chengdu, a city in the southwest. “We don’t want rulers for life,” they cried. “China doesn’t need an emperor.”

Across the country, and not just at the universities, citizens seem to be reaching a tipping point. In the name of ‘zero Covid’ they have endured nearly three years of relentless controls that have left many sealed in their homes, sent to quarantine centers or banned from travel. Residents will have to undergo repeated coronavirus testing and monitoring of their exercise and health status.

The fire in Urumqi followed a bus accident in September, which killed 27 people as they were being taken to a quarantine center. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai left residents behind without enough food and sparked online and offline protests. Deaths linked to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old who died after his parents were unable to get him to hospital, have further fueled public anger.

Health officials say this strategy of cutting off Covid transmission as quickly as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent a spike in severe cases and deaths that would overwhelm the health system. Due to the low rate of infection, China’s population of 1.4 billion has low natural immunity. Those who were immunized received domestically made vaccines that were less effective against the more contagious Omicron variant.

As China eases coronavirus restrictions, confusion and fear follow

The Xinjiang fire also comes after weeks of particularly heightened frustration over pandemic policies, which were relaxed in some places and then tightened again amid a fresh spike in cases. On Sunday, China reported 39,791 new infections, the fourth consecutive day with a record number of cases.

An article in the state-run People’s Daily on Sunday called for an “unwavering commitment” to current Covid policies. At a briefing on Sunday, Urumqi officials said public transport would partially resume on Monday in a phased effort to lift lockdown measures.

In Shanghai, the police finally stormed the vigil site and blocked access to the street. They clashed with protesters and pushed them into cars before dispersing the crowd around 5am. At one point, the crowd tried to stop the police from dragging away a man who was reciting a poem in honor of the victims.

Videos posted on Sunday show crowds in the area shouting: “let them go!” an obvious reference to those arrested. Chen said he saw a dozen people being arrested.

“I’m not the kind of person to be a leader,” he said, “but if there’s an opportunity to speak out or do something to help, I want to do it.”

Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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