Protests against China’s restrictive coronavirus policies have spread to more cities as anger mounts over a deadly fire in the western region of Xinjiang linked to the country’s strict lockdown policies.
Hundreds of students from Tsinghua University in Beijing gathered on their campuses on Sunday, chanting “freedom will triumph” and calling for an end to the lockdowns, AFP reported.
The rally follows overnight demonstrations in Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, as well as at a university in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing.
A protest on the campus of Tsinghua University. This is very rare after 1989. pic.twitter.com/4Yzt0YgG7m
– Yang Zhang (@ProfYangZhang) November 27, 2022
A student in Tsinghua told AFP that Sunday’s gathering began at 11:30 am (03:30 GMT), when “students began to put up banners at the entrance to the canteen, and then more and more people joined.”
The student added, “Now there are 200 to 300 people… We sang the national and world anthems, and chanted, ‘Freedom prevails’.”
There was no immediate comment from the Chinese government.
The Associated Press reported that hundreds of people gathered in Shanghai at the city’s Wulumqi Road at midnight, bringing flowers, candles and banners reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died in peace” to commemorate the 10 people who died in an apartment building fire in the capital. Xinjiang, Urumqi.
The deaths sparked widespread public outrage as many netizens speculated that the residents of the high-rise building could not escape in time because the building was partially locked. But city officials rejected that claim.
Crowds in Shanghai chanted, “Unlock Urumqi, unlock Xinjiang, unlock all of China!” , according to a video purportedly of the protest circulating on social media.
At one point a large group started shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping, liberate Urumqi!” , according to witnesses and video footage.
A large group of police looked on and at times tried to disperse the crowd.
“we want freedom!” pic.twitter.com/yoTeYaFJAx
— Eva Ramelow (@eefjerammeloo) November 26, 2022
Just extraordinary scenes in Shanghai: “CCP steps down, Xi Jinping steps down” https://t.co/HjSKmW6RCz
– Dr. Lita Hung Venture 洪 理 达 (Lita Hung) November 26, 2022
One of the protesters, who gave only his last name, told the Associated Press that one of his friends was beaten by police, and two of his friends were pepper sprayed. He said the police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process, and left the demonstration barefoot.
Zhao said the protesters chanted slogans, including “Xi Jinping, step down; Communist Party, step down”, “Open Xinjiang, open China”, “Don’t want PCR”. [tests]You want freedom and “freedom of the press”.
Another protester, who gave only his last name, Shaw, told the Associated Press that there was a crowd larger than thousands of protesters.
Posts about the protest on social media were promptly deleted, as the Chinese Communist Party usually does to quash criticism.
Some social media users posted footage of street signs leading to Wulumuqi Road, to evade censorship and show support for protesters in Shanghai. Others shared comments or posts calling on all “brave guys” to be careful. Many of them included advice on what to do if the police came or started arresting people during a demonstration or vigil.
The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. Early in the pandemic, its citizens praised China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 for reducing deaths at a time when other countries were reeling from devastating waves of infections.
But support for Xi’s signature policy of “no COVID” has dissipated in recent months, as Beijing continues to abide by the restrictions even as much of the world tries to come to terms with the coronavirus.
Although low by global standards, cases in China have been at record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections reported on Sunday the day before.
In Xinjiang, where the government has been accused of abuses against the Muslim Uighur minority, residents have been confined since August. Most were not allowed to leave their homes, and some reported dire conditions, including interruptions in food deliveries that caused residents to starve.
One woman told the AP that some residents had their doors chained. The agency said many in Urumqi believe that such brute force tactics may have prevented residents from escaping in Thursday’s fire.
Their anger boiled over after Urumqi city officials held a press conference about the fire in which they appeared to pass responsibility for the deaths onto the tower’s residents.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was very weak,” said Li Wensheng, chief of the Urumqi Fire Department.
Police also cracked down on dissenting voices, announcing the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for posting “incorrect information” about the death toll online.
Late Friday, people in Urumqi marched largely peacefully on a cold winter’s night.
Videos of the protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “open up, open up”.
The photos spread quickly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed against rows of men in the revealing white full-body suits worn by local government employees and epidemic prevention volunteers, according to the videos.
By Saturday, most of the photos had been deleted by censors, but authorities in Urumqi that same day opened up some neighborhoods in the city of four million that were considered low-risk.
In Beijing, some residents under lockdown have staged small protests or confronted local officials over restrictions on movement, and some have successfully pressured them to lift restrictions ahead of schedule.
Reuters said footage from Beijing showed some residents in an undisclosed part of the city walking around an open-air car park on Saturday, chanting “Stop the lockdown!”
In Nanjing, videos posted online showed hundreds of students gathering on the campus of the China Communications University in solidarity with the victims of the Urumqi fire.
The New York Times said smaller protests and stories of protests also occurred at Peking University and Wuhan University of Technology.
In the Chinese language, there is a phrase that means that a single spark can start a prairie fire. This is what we saw during the day in China. Students from Nanjing Broadcasting College in Nanjing first started a mounting gathering for the victims of the Xinjiang fires. And so the sparks spread pic.twitter.com/RPnsjTbEXC
– Vivian Wu (@vivianwubeijing) November 26, 2022
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