Protests against China’s draconian ‘Zero Covid’ policy erupted in several cities, prompting authorities to censor online content about the rare demonstrations.
The protests have been fueled by dissatisfaction with the central government’s zero-Covid policy, which sees authorities impose emergency lockdowns, lengthy quarantines, and mass testing campaigns for a small number of cases. A deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, on Thursday sparked new public outrage, with many blaming Covid lockdowns for impeding rescue efforts. The claims are denied by authorities. Following the deadly fire, hundreds of people gathered outside Urumqi’s government offices, chanting “Lift lockdowns!”
China has blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the deadly fire to the country’s strict Covid measures. According to the foreign ministry, the government’s “fight against Covid-19 will be successful.” Protests were also reported in Wuhan, the central city where Covid-19 first emerged, as well as Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Hong Kong.
State censors appeared to have scrubbed Chinese social media of any news about the rallies, with the search terms “Liangma River” and “Urumqi Road” – protest sites in Beijing and Shanghai – scrubbed of any references to the rallies on the Weibo platform, which is similar to Twitter. China reported 40,052 domestic Covid-19 cases on Monday, a record high but small in comparison to caseloads in the West during the pandemic’s peak.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said on Monday that the Chinese government should “take notice” of protests against its strict zero-COVID policy and restrictions on freedoms. “When protests against the Chinese government occur, I believe the world should take notice, but I believe the Chinese government should take notice,” Cleverly told reporters.
“It’s clear that the Chinese people are deeply unhappy with what’s going on, with the restrictions imposed on them by the Chinese government,” Cleverly said, adding, “These are the voices of Chinese people talking to their government, and I think it’s right that the Chinese government listens to what those people are saying.”
Beijing’s municipal government announced that it would no longer erect barriers to prevent access to infected apartment complexes. It made no mention of a deadly fire last week, which sparked protests after angry online questions about whether firefighters or victims attempting to flee were obstructed by locked doors or other anti-virus controls.
“Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes, and rescues,” said Wang Daguang, a city official in charge of epidemic control, according to China News Service. Protests erupted in at least eight major cities after at least ten people were killed in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s northwestern region, on Thursday.
Most protesters complained about excessive restrictions, but some chanted anti-Xi slogans, which have been China’s most powerful leader since the 1980s. In a video obtained by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai chanted, “Xi Jinping! CCP, step down! Step down!” Police used pepper spray to disperse the protest, but people returned to the same location on Sunday for another protest.
After being detained, a reporter witnessed an unknown number being driven away in a police bus. Other videos on social media, claiming to be from Nanjing in the east, Chongqing and Chengdu in the southwest, and other cities, showed protesters clashing with police in white protective suits or dismantling barricades used to separate neighborhoods. The Associated Press was unable to confirm whether or not all of those protests took place.