Crowd angered by lockdowns calls on China’s Xi to step down
BEIJING — Protests over China’s pervasive virus checks that have confined millions of people to their homes have spread to Shanghai and other cities after complaints they may have increased the death toll in a blaze. apartment in the northwest.
Shanghai police used pepper spray against around 300 protesters, a witness said. They gathered on Saturday evening to mourn the death of at least 10 people in an apartment fire last week in Urumqi in the northwest Xinjiang region.
Videos posted to social media that said they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south and at least five other cities showed protesters fighting with police in white protective gear or dismantling barricades used to seal the quarters. Witnesses said a protest took place in Urumqi, but The Associated Press was unable to confirm details of other videos.
President Xi Jinping’s government is facing growing anger over its ‘zero-COVID’ policy that has closed off areas across China in a bid to isolate every case at a time when other governments relax controls and try to live with the virus.
This has kept China’s infection rate lower than that of the United States and other countries. But the ruling Communist Party faces mounting complaints about the economic and human cost as businesses close and families are isolated for weeks with limited access to food and medicine.
Some protesters were shown in videos shouting for Xi to step down or for the ruling party to relinquish power.
Party leaders vowed last month to make restrictions less disruptive by easing quarantine and other rules, but said they were sticking to “zero-COVID”. Meanwhile, a surge in infections that pushed daily cases above 30,000 for the first time has led local authorities to impose restrictions that residents complain exceed what is authorized by the national government.
The fire deaths in Urumqi have sparked a flurry of angry questions online over whether firefighters who took three hours to put out the blaze or victims trying to escape could have been hampered by locked doors or other controls. Authorities have denied this, but the disaster has become a focal point of public anger over anti-disease restrictions, ruling party propaganda and censorship.
In Shanghai, protesters gathered on Middle Urumqi Road at midnight with flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace”, according to a participant who would only give his surname , Zhao.
Zhao said one of his friends was beaten by police and two others were sprayed with pepper spray. He said the police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes and went barefoot.
According to Zhao, the protesters shouted slogans such as “Xi Jinping, quit, Communist Party, quit”, “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China”, “don’t want PCR (tests), want freedom” and “the freedom of press”.
About 100 police lined up to prevent protesters from gathering or leaving, Zhao said. He said buses with more police arrived later.
Another protester, who gave only his last name, Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of protesters, but the police stood on the road and let them pass on the curb.
Netizens posted videos and accounts on Chinese and overseas social media showing protests in Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest and Urumqi and Korla in Xinjiang.
A video saying it was shot in Urumqi showed protesters chanting, “Suppress the Communist Party! Remove Xi Jinping!
Protests in Xinjiang are particularly risky following a security crackdown on Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim ethnic minorities, which has included mass detentions.
Most of the protesters in the videos were members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group. A Uighur woman from Urumqi said Uighurs were too scared to take to the streets.
“Han Chinese people know they won’t be punished if they speak out against the lockdown,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of reprisals. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to prison or to camps.
Posts on Chinese social media were quickly deleted, something Beijing often does to suppress criticism that could serve as a rallying point for opposition to one-party rule.
People in parts of Xinjiang have been confined to their homes since early August. Some complain of not having access to food and medicine and have appealed for help online.
In a possible attempt to appease the public, authorities announced on Saturday that they had reached “societal COVID zero” and that restrictions in Urumqi and Korla would be eased. The government said taxi, rail, bus and other public services that had been suspended for weeks would resume. State-owned China Southern Airlines said it would resume flights from Urumqi to four Chinese cities from Monday.
Social media users greeted the news that the disease was under control with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can reach this speed,” wrote one user on social media service Sina Weibo.
Anger boiled over earlier after Urumqi city officials appeared to blame residents of the apartment tower for the deaths in Thursday night’s blaze.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak,” Urumqi fire chief Li Wensheng told a news conference.
Police have announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman accused of spreading “false information” about the death toll online.
Late Friday, residents of Urumqi marched largely peacefully in large, puffy winter jackets in the cold winter night.
Videos of protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open, open”. Some were shouting and pushing against rows of men in white protective suits.
Two Urumqi residents who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said large-scale protests took place on Friday evening. One of them said he had friends who participated.
The AP identified the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police wearing face masks and hospital gowns clashed with screaming protesters. In another, a protester spoke to a crowd about his demands. It was unclear how widespread the protests were.
Xi defended the strategy as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system over the United States and other Western countries, which have politicized the use of face masks and struggled to implement widespread lockdowns.
But support for ‘zero-COVID’ has crumbled in recent months as tragedies have sparked public anger.
Last week, the central city government of Zhengzhou apologized for the death of a 4-month-old girl who was under quarantine. His father said his efforts to take him to hospital were delayed after paramedics were reluctant to help because he tested positive for the virus.
The Uyghur woman from Urumqi said she had not been able to leave her apartment since August 8 and had not even been allowed to open her window. On Friday, she and her neighbors defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest.
“No more containment! No more confinements!” they shouted, according to the woman.