Rare protests against China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies continued in Shanghai and Beijing on Sunday afternoon, which had spread across the country after a deadly apartment fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi on Friday. Crowds stood and filmed as police started shoving at people who had gathered in on the same street in Shanghai where police had cleared hundreds 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. Since Friday people have been protesting across China, where street demonstrations are extremely rare. Public anger boiled over after 10 people died in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi that many believe was caused by excessive lockdown measures that delayed rescue efforts. One social media post which translates Chinese media reports into English on Twitter posted a video of the fire.
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.
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.