Protests against China’s strict zero-Covid policy have erupted across the country. The demonstrations began on Friday after 10 people died in a fire in an apartment block in Urumqi, a far western city in Xinjiang. Many believe the people who died in Urumqi could have been saved if the area had not been under lockdown, which allegedly delayed the arrival of firefighters. Images of the people calling out for help from the burning building went viral on China’s social media, with users calling for authorities to relax the strict lockdown measures.
The protests continued Saturday night in several Chinese cities. The biggest demonstration was in Shanghai, where young people and students waved blank sheets of paper – a symbol of defiance in the protests. Chanting “we want freedom” and “open up China,” hundreds of residents congregated on Urumqi street, in tribute to the victims of the Urumqi tragedy in Xinjiang, where some people have been in lockdown for as long as 100 days.
The site of the demonstration – which was attended between 500 and 1,000 people, according to a reporter on the ground – was no accident. Frustration over the Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy has been building in Shanghai for the past three years, but the tragedy in Urumqi has galvanized residents into action.
In videos shared on social media, some of the crowd can be heard openly calling for the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with slogans such as “Xi Jinping, step down” and “Communist Party, step down.” Such criticism of the Chinese leader is extremely rare given the country’s hard-line approach to dissent. According to some witnesses, dozens of people were arrested at Saturday’s protest.
On Sunday, young people again took to the street in Shanghai, with foreign journalists reporting on Twitter that a new protest against the police was taking place on Urumqi street. Several people tried to lay flowers at the site, but were stopped by officers. The crowd was calling for the arrested protesters to be released, according to live footage of the demonstration. Hundreds of people were also protesting in Wuhan, where the first Covid-19 cases were detected. In videos shared of the march, the protesters were seen chanting against the lockdown measures, and pulling down the signs that mark confined areas.
The discontent spread to large cities such as Nanjing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Guangzhou, where hundreds of students held a vigil for the victims of the Urumqi tragedy. In videos of the vigils, young people were heard chanting “long live the people” and singing the left-wing anthem The Internationale, while waving the lights from their cellphones. The protests were reminiscent of those organized after the death of Li Wenliang, who was one of the first doctors to raise the alert about the virus spreading in Wuhan. The warnings of the doctor, who died of Covid-19, were ignored by authorities.
In addition to blank sheets of paper, the slogan “404″ has also become a key symbol of the protests. The numbers are a reference to the 404 error code and the country’s censorship of online messages regarding the pandemic.
The Urumqi tragedy has heightened public anger at a time when China is registering the highest number of Covid-19 infections since the start of the pandemic. Three years after the first cases were detected, the Chinese government remains committed to implementing harsh lockdowns and mass testing to contain the transmission of the virus. Initially, most of the population accepted that the measures were needed to prevent the high death tolls seen in the United States and Europe. But patience is wearing thin as the people see other countries return to pre-pandemic life, despite recording new Covid-19 cases.
On Sunday, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, The People’s Daily, published an editorial calling for the need to persevere with the zero-Covid strategy. As cases continue to rise, many residents in Beijing are currently confined to their homes, while restaurants, parks and schools are closed. The restrictions are more severe in big cities such as Guangzhou and Chongqing, where public transportation has been suspended and residents need a negative test to leave their homes.