Widespread Protests Against Zero-Covid Measures Rock China

Swarajya Staff

Nov 27, 2022, 10:48 PM | Updated 11:48 PM IST

The Covid outbreak in China.
The Covid outbreak in China.

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in Beijing and Shanghai to protest against China's zero-Covid policy in an outpouring of public anger against the state.

Mary Gallagher, professor of political science at Michigan University said that, "Important to remember protests in China aren't new or unusual. # have gone down under XI after high tide of labor, land, environment protests of the Hu-Wen period, who didn't always repress legitimate grievances. what's different now?"

"The CCP has tended to tolerate *large* protests re: "livelihood" issues and to repress system-changing protests of *any* size. That's why protests re: #ZeroCovidChina are dangerous."

" Previously livelihood protests demand that gov't *do* something: restrain capital and corruption. Now at least some people demand that the gov't rollback lockdowns that put people's lives in danger and destroy the economy. They demand *freedom* in order to live...."

"...A potential system-changing demand embedded in a livelihood claim! Other danger is that Zero Covid is clearly associated with the central government and with XI himself."

" It's easier for disparate protests across the country to unite behind a central mistake in policy rather than a local mistake in implementation. Already the demands are shifting, away from locals to the center," she reasoned.

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

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

Anger boiled over earlier after Urumqi city officials appeared to blame the deaths from Thursday night’s fire on the apartment tower’s residents.

“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” said Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s fire department, at a news conference.

Late Friday, people in Urumqi marched largely peacefully in big puffy winter jackets in the cold winter night. 

Videos of protests featured people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open up, open up.” Some shouted and pushed against rows of men in the white protective suits.

Hundreds rallied at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University to protest against lockdowns on Sunday. "At 11:30 am students started holding up signs at the entrance of the canteen, then more and more people joined. Now there are 200 to 300 people," a student said to news agencies. 

Participants sang the national anthem and "the Internationale" – a standard of the international communist movement – and chanted "freedom will prevail" and "no to lockdowns, we want freedom", they said. They described students holding up blank pieces of paper, a symbolic protest against censorship.

And in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered in the megacity's downtown to hold what appeared to be a silent protest, an eyewitness told AFP, near where a demonstration had erupted just hours earlier.

Demonstrators holding blank pieces of paper and white flowers stood silently at several intersections, the person said under condition of anonymity, before police officers eventually moved to clear the blocked roads.

Crowds had gathered hours before on nearby Wulumuqi street – named for Urumqi in Mandarin – with video showing protesters chanting "Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!" in a rare display of public opposition to the Chinese Communist Party's top leadership. 

A person who attended the Shanghai protests said to news agencies that the first rally was in full swing at 2:00 am (7:00 pm CET), with one group mourning the 10 people killed in the Urumqi fire while another group chanted slogans.

Video taken by an eyewitness showed a large crowd shouting and holding up blank pieces of paper as they faced several lines of police. The attendee said there were minor clashes but that overall the police were "civilised".

"It's shocking to know that, under today's circumstances, there are still many brave people standing out," they said. Multiple witnesses said several people were taken away by the police.

Authorities were swift to curb online discussion of the protest, with related phrases scrubbed from the Twitter-like Weibo platform almost immediately after footage of the rallies emerged.

Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper. Hashtags relating to the protest were censored on Weibo, and video platforms Duoyin and Kuaishou were scrubbed of footage.

Videos from Xi'an, Guangzhou and Wuhan showing similar small protests also spread on social media.

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

The protests come against a backdrop of mounting public frustration over China's zero-tolerance approach to the virus and follow sporadic rallies in other cities.

A number of high-profile cases in which emergency services have been allegedly slowed down by Covid lockdowns, leading to deaths, have catalyzed public opposition.

Hundreds of people massed outside Urumqi's government offices after the deadly fire, chanting: "Lift lockdowns!"

(With inputs from AFP and AP)

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