Chinese authorities crackdown amid rare protests against COVID rules and leadership

Access to the comments Comments
By Daniel Bellamy  & AP, AFP
Police officers confront protestors in Shanghai on Nov. 27, 2022, scene of protests against China's zero-COVID policy.
Police officers confront protestors in Shanghai on Nov. 27, 2022, scene of protests against China's zero-COVID policy.   -   Copyright  MICHAEL ZHANG/AFP or licensors

Chinese authorities have begun cracking down on demonstrators after rare protests against the country's strict  “zero-COVID” policies over the weekend. 

Two people were arrested by police in Shanghai on Monday following the unrest, with officers saying those detained had "not obeyed" their provisions. 

Protests broke out on Friday following a deadly apartment fire in the city of Urumqi, in the northwestern Xinjiang province. Many believe that incident was made worse by excessive lockdown measures that hampered rescue efforts. 

Government censors were reportedly working hard on Monday to erase all online traces of the demonstrations, which spread across Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan, and there was a large police presence on the streets. 

Public anger has focused on the deaths of ten people in the apartment blaze and on health restrictions deemed excessive and anti-freedom. But wider criticisms of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his communist party have been voiced. 

On Sunday, large crowds stood and filmed as police started shoving people who had gathered in Shanghai, after officers cleared hundreds of others away with force just hours before.

They shouted: “We don't want PCR tests, we want freedom!” according to a witness who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.

It is difficult to verify the number of participants in the demonstrations, but AFP described them as the most important since the pro-democracy protests in 1989. 

China is one of the only countries in the world that still has strict "zero Covid" policies, involving repeated lockdowns and daily testing of the population. 

The BBC says one of its reporters was arrested by police on Sunday. 

"The BBC is very concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence who was arrested and handcuffed while covering protests in Shanghai," a spokesperson for the British media outlet said. 

Beijing claimed he did not identify himself as a journalist. 

Videos posted on social media that managed to evade the censors on Sunday were said to have been filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south, Beijing in the north and at least five other cities.

They showed protesters tussling with police in white Covid protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighbourhoods.

A crowdsourced list, posted on social media by the China editor of Singapore-based Initium Media, said there were demonstrations in 50 universities.

Online, videos from the scenes quickly emerged. Some of the most shared videos came from Shanghai, which had borne a devastating lockdown in spring in which people struggled to secure groceries and medicines and were forcefully taken into centralised quarantine.

In the dark early hours of Sunday, standing on the road named after a city in Xinjiang where at least 10 people had just died in an apartment fire, protesters chanted “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down," referring to the president and the ruling communist party.

One protester who chanted with the crowd confirmed to Associated Press that people did shout for the removal of Xi Jinping, China's leader — words that many would never have thought would have been said aloud in one of China's biggest cities.

Hundreds of protesters had gathered along a street in Shanghai starting around midnight on Saturday. They split into two different sections of Middle Urumqi Road. There was one group that was more calm and brought candles, flowers and signs honouring those who died in the apartment fire. The other, said a protester who declined to be named out of fear of arrest, was more active, shouting slogans and singing the national anthem.

The energy was encouraging, the protester said. People called for an official apology for deaths in the Urumqi fire. Others discussed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in which the ruling Communist Party had ordered troops to fire on student protesters. One ethnic Uyghur individual shared his experiences of discrimination and police violence.

“Everyone thinks that Chinese people are afraid to come out and protest, that they don’t have any courage,” said the protester who said it was his first time demonstrating. “Actually in my heart, I also thought of this. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.”

At first the scene was peaceful. Around 3 a.m., it turned violent. Police started surrounding the protesters and broke up the first more active group before they came for the second that had brought flowers. The goal was to move people off the main street.

A protester who gave only his family name, Zhao, said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper sprayed. He said police stomped his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process, and left the protest barefoot.

Zhao says protesters yelled slogans including “(We) do not want PCR (tests), but want freedom,” in reference to the protest staged by a lone man in Beijing ahead of the 20th Communist Party congress in Beijing in October.

Chinatopix Via AP
Residents record the scene as they mourn for the victims a recent deadly fire at a residential building in Urumqi city and calls for press freedom in Shanghai, Nov. 26, 2022.Chinatopix Via AP

After three years of harsh lockdowns that have left people confined in their homes for weeks at a time, the Xinjiang fire appears to have finally broken through the Chinese public's ability to tolerate the harsh measures.

China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 with strict lockdowns and mass testing was hailed by its own citizens as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections. Xi had held up the approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system in comparison to the West and especially the U.S., which had politicized the use of masks and had difficulties enacting widespread lockdowns.

In recent weeks, that attitude has changed as tragedies under excessive enforcement of “zero COVID” have piled up.

In Shanghai hundreds of police stood in lines, forming clusters around protesters in a strategy to clear them out, protesters said. Through the effort of a few hours, the police broke apart the protesters into smaller groups, moving them out from Urumqi Road.

By 5 a.m. Sunday, the police had managed to clear the crowd.

The protester who declined to be named said that he saw multiple people being taken away, forced by police into vans, but could not identify them. A crowdsourced attempt online has so far identified six people being hauled away, based on images and videos from the night, as well as information by those who knew the detained. Among the detained is a young woman who is only known by her nickname “Little He."

Posters circulated online calling for further action in Shanghai and in Chengdu, a major city in China's southwest, on Sunday evening. Shanghai's protest called for the release of those taken away.

In Beijing, students at the nation's top college, Tsinghua University, held a demonstration Sunday afternoon in front of one of the school's cafeterias. Three young women had stood there initially with a simple message of condolence for the victims of the Urumqi apartment fire, according to a witness, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution.

Students shouted “freedom of speech” and sang the Internationale. The deputy party secretary of the school arrived at the protest, promising to hold a schoolwide discussion.