By CNN’s Beijing bureau and Nectar Gan
Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday faced unprecedented dissent after thousands of demonstrators protested in cities across China over the weekend against his zero-Covid strategy — with some daring to openly call for his removal in the streets.
“Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” some protesters yelled among hundreds who gathered in the financial hub Shanghai — one of multiple major cities where protests broke out following a deadly fire Thursday at an apartment block in the far western region of Xinjiang.
The fire appeared to act as a catalyst for searing public anger over China’s strict zero-Covid measures after videos emerged that seemed to suggest lockdown measures delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.
From Shanghai to the capital Beijing, residents gathered to grieve the 10 people killed in the blaze in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, speak out against zero-Covid and call for freedom and democracy. On dozens of university campuses, students demonstrated or put up protest posters. In many parts of the country, residents in locked-down neighborhoods tore down barriers and took to the streets, following mass anti-lockdown protests that swept Urumqi on Friday night.
Such widespread scenes of anger and defiance — some of which stretched into the early hours of Monday morning — are exceptionally rare in China, where the ruling Communist Party ruthlessly cracks down on all expressions of dissent. But three years into the pandemic, many people have been pushed to the brink by the government’s incessant use of lockdowns, Covid tests and quarantines — as well as ever-tightening censorship and continued onslaught on personal freedoms.
The ratcheting-up of restrictions in recent months, coupled with a series of heartbreaking deaths blamed on an over-zealous policing of the controls, has brought matters to a head.
Chinese stock markets and the yuan tumbled in early trade Monday amid concern about the government’s potential response to the protests, which varied from city to city and in some areas became more heavy-handed as the weekend progressed.
At a news conference Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian deflected questions about the protests and claimed that social media posts linking the Xinjiang fire with Covid policies had “ulterior motives.”
Authorities had been “making adjustments based on realities on the ground,” he said. When asked about protesters calling on Xi to step down, he replied: “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
Though the protests made headlines in international media, Chinese state media carried stories and opinion pieces stressing the severity of the Covid outbreak and the need to persevere with methods to stamp it out.
“Practices have proven that our Covid measures can stand the test of history, they are scientific and effective,” said an opinion piece published by the Xinhua news agency on Monday. “Perseverance prevails.”
But the challenge to zero-Covid posed by the spread of more contagious variants was underlined Monday when China reported 40,052 new local cases — the sixth consecutive day of record figures, according to the National Health Commission.
Nearly 4,000 of those infections were identified in Beijing, where — without referring to the protests — city authorities on Sunday banned blocking entrances to residential compounds under lockdown, adding that access must be granted to emergency services.
Protests in Shanghai
Brewing anger over the fire deaths led to remarkable acts of defiance in Shanghai, where many of its 25 million residents hold deep resentment toward the government’s zero-Covid policy after being subjected to a two-month lockdown in the spring.
Late on Saturday night, hundreds of residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on Urumqi Road, which was named after the city, to mourn the victims of the Xinjiang fire, according to videos widely circulated — and promptly censored — on Chinese social media and a witness account.
Surrounding a makeshift memorial of candles, flowers and placards, the crowd held up blank sheets of white paper — in what is traditionally a symbolic protest against censorship — and chanted, “Need human rights, need freedom.”
In multiple videos seen by CNN, people could be heard shouting demands for Xi and the Communist Party to “step down.” The crowd also chanted, “Don’t want Covid test, want freedom!” and “Don’t want dictatorship, want democracy!”
Some videos show people singing China’s national anthem and The Internationale, a standard of the socialist movement, while holding banners protesting the country’s exceptionally stringent pandemic measures.
Rows of police officers, who initially looked on from the outside, started to move in to push back and divide the crowd around 3 a.m., sparking tense face-offs with the protesters, according to a witness.
The witness told CNN they saw several people arrested and taken into a police vehicle next to the makeshift memorial after 4.30 a.m. They also saw several protesters being grabbed by the officers from the crowd and taken behind the police line. The protest gradually dispersed before dawn, the witness said.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Shanghai residents returned to the site to continue protesting despite a heavy police presence and road blocks.
Videos showed hundreds of people at an intersection shouting “Release the people!” in a demand for the police to free detained demonstrators.
This time around, police adopted a more hardline approach, moving faster and more aggressively to make arrests and disperse the crowds.
In one video, a man holding a bundle of chrysanthemum gave a speech while walking on a pedestrian crossing, as a police officer tried to stop him.
“We need to be braver! Am I breaking the law by holding flowers?” he asked the crowd, who shouted “No!” in reply.
“We Chinese need to be braver!” he said to the applause of the crowd. “So many of us were arrested yesterday. Are they without job or without family? We should not be afraid!”
The man put up a struggle as more than a dozen officers forced him into a police car, as the angry crowd shouted “Release him!” and rushed toward the vehicle.
Other videos show chaotic scenes of police pushing, dragging and beating protesters.
In the evening, after one protester was violently dragged away, hundreds of people shouted “triads” at the police, in reference to local crime gangs, according to a livestream.
BBC journalist Edward Lawrence was arrested at the scene of the Shanghai protests on Sunday night and later released, according to a statement from the BBC. A BBC spokesperson expressed concern about Lawrence’s treatment, claiming he was “beaten and kicked by the police.”
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao acknowledged Lawrence’s arrest, claiming he had not identified himself as a journalist before being detained.
By Sunday evening, mass demonstrations had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, where thousands of residents called for not only an end to Covid restrictions, but more remarkably, political freedoms.
In Beijing, hundreds of mostly young people demonstrated in the commercial heart of the city well into the small hours of Monday. A small crowd first gathered along the Liangma River for a vigil for the victims of the Xinjiang fire, before it grew in size and eventually marched down the city’s Third Ring Road.
People chanted slogans against zero-Covid, voiced support for the detained protesters in Shanghai, and called for greater civil liberties. “We want freedom! We want freedom!” the crowd chanted under an overpass.
Speaking to CNN’s Selina Wang at the protest, a demonstrator said he was shocked by the turnout.
“Every conscientious Chinese should be here. They don’t have to voice their opinions, but I hope they can stand with us,” he said.
In the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu, large crowds demonstrated along the bustling river banks in a popular food and shopping district, according to a protester interviewed by CNN and videos circulating online.
The gathering started with a minute of silence to mourn the Xinjiang fire victims, later turning political as the crowd grew in size, numbering into the hundreds.
“Opposition to dictatorship!” the crowd chanted. “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors!” they shouted in a thinly veiled reference to Xi, who last month began a norm-shattering third term in office.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, hundreds gathered on a public square in Haizhu district — the epicenter of the city’s ongoing Covid outbreak that has been locked down for weeks.
“We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom! Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of arts, freedom of movement, personal freedoms. Give me back my freedom!” The crowd shouted.
Across China, protests have also broken out on university campuses — which are particularly politically sensitive to the Communist Party, given the history of the student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, about 100 students gathered around a protest slogan painted on a wall at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing. A student told CNN that when he arrived at the scene at around 1 a.m., security guards were using jackets to cover the protest sign.
“Say no to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to Covid test, yes to food,” read the message written in red paint, echoing the slogan of a protest that took place on a Beijing overpass in October, just days before a key Communist Party meeting at which Xi secured a third term in power.
“Open your eyes and look at the world, dynamic zero-Covid is a lie,” the protest slogan at Peking University read.
The student said security guards later covered the slogan with black paint.
Students later gathered to sing the The Internationale before being dispersed by teachers and security guards.
In the eastern province of Jiangsu, at least dozens of students from Communication University of China, Nanjing gathered on Saturday evening to mourn those who died in the Xinjiang fire. Videos show the students holding up sheets of white paper and mobile phone flashlights.
In one video, a university official could be heard warning the students: “You will pay for what you did today.”
“You too, and so will the country,” a student shouted in reply.
The campus protests continued on Sunday. At Tsinghua University, another elite university in Beijing, hundreds of students gathered on a square to protest against zero-Covid and censorship.
Videos and images circulating on social media show students holding up sheets of white paper and shouting: “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”
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CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed to reporting.