Protests in China as anger over zero covid policy mounts

Hundreds of people took to the streets of major Chinese cities on Sunday to protest the country’s zero-Covid policy, in a rare outburst of public anger against the state.

China’s hardline virus strategy is stoking public frustration, with many growing weary of quick lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns.

A deadly fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwest Xinjiang region, has become a new catalyst for public anger, with many blaming Covid lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts. Authorities deny the claims.

On Sunday night, at least 400 people gathered on the banks of a river in the capital Beijing for several hours, some chanting: “We are all Xinjiang people! Forward, Chinese people!”

AFP reporters at the scene described the crowd singing the national anthem and listening to speeches as a line of police cars waited on the other side of the canal bank.

Cars honked in support as people stayed in the area until the early hours, chanting and waving blank sheets of paper symbolizing censorship.

Authorities blocked the road to stop cars from passing and around 100 policemen and plainclothes police arrived at the scene.

Around 2:00 am (18:00 GMT) they were joined by paramilitary police trainers.

Ultimately, the protesters agreed to leave after making the officers promise that their demands had been heard.

Shanghai clashes

In downtown Shanghai, China’s largest metropolis, AFP saw police clash with groups of protesters, as officers tried to move people away from the site of an earlier demonstration on Wulumuqi Street, named after the Shanghai Mandarin. Urumqi.

Crowds that had gathered overnight, some of whom chanted “Xi Jinping, stand down! CCP, stand down!” – dispersed on Sunday morning.

But in the afternoon, hundreds rallied in the same area with blank sheets of paper and flowers in what appeared to be a silent protest, a witness told AFP.

Social media videos from the area that appeared to have been taken in the late afternoon showed the crowd chanting.

At dusk, dozens of policemen in high-visibility yellow jackets formed a thick line, cordoning off the streets where the protests had taken place.

AFP saw several people arrested as officers told protesters to leave the area.

A foreigner who wished to remain anonymous told AFP he had seen a clash as police cleared a crowd off Wulumuqi Street.

“The police seemed to be looking for people suspected of leading the protests,” he said.

“The protesters directed their anger against the police and the party, using the ‘resign!’ abstain from the last days.”

At midnight, the area was calm, albeit awash with hundreds of police officers and dozens of cars lined up on both sides of the road in places.

Men in hardhats and coveralls were erecting tall blue metal barriers along the sides of the street, cutting into the pavement. When asked why, they said they didn’t know.

In the central megacity of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged, multiple live streams that were quickly censored showed crowds walking the streets cheering and filming on their phones.

Footage of the protests allegedly taken in the major cities of Guangzhou and Chengdu also spread online Sunday night, but AFP was unable to independently verify the videos.

university protests

Earlier in the day, around 200 to 300 students rallied at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University to protest the closures, a witness who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.

A video that appeared to have been taken at the same location showed students chanting “Democracy and rule of law, freedom of expression” and was quickly removed.

Other vigils took place overnight at universities across China, including one at Peking University, neighboring Tsinghua, a university participant told AFP.

He said that some anti-Covid slogans had been painted on a wall at the university.

Some of the words were echoed by a banner that was hung over a Beijing bridge just before the Communist Party Congress in October.

“I heard people yelling, ‘No to Covid testing, yes to freedom!’” he said, adding that there were between 100 and 200 people there.

Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at the Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper.

Hashtags related to the institute were censored on Weibo, and video platforms Duoyin and Kuaishou were removed from images.

Videos from campuses in Xi’an, Guangzhou and Wuhan showing similar protests have also spread on social media. AFP could not independently verify the images.

‘Lift the blockades!’

China reported 39,506 domestic cases of Covid-19 on Sunday, a record high but small compared to the number of cases in the West at the height of the pandemic.

The protests come against a backdrop of growing public frustration over China’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus and sporadic demonstrations continue in other cities.

Hundreds of people gathered in front of the Urumqi government offices after the deadly fire, chanting: “Lift the blockades!” AFP partially verified footage shows.

AFP verified the video by geolocating local landmarks, but was unable to specify exactly when the protests occurred.

It is the latest of several high-profile cases where emergency services have reportedly been slowed down by Covid lockdowns.

The World Cup in Qatar also turned out to be a flash point, as scenes of fans without masks sparked outrage on social media.

China’s state broadcaster began cropping close-ups of fans and replacing them with shots of officials or players.

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