Protests against restrictive Chinese measures related to the novel coronavirus appeared to have spread to a number of cities on Saturday night, in a crowd-defiance demonstration fueled by anger over a deadly fire in the western region of Xinjiang.
Many of the protests could not immediately be confirmed, but in Shanghai police used pepper spray to arrest about 300 protesters who gathered on Urumqi Central Road at midnight, bringing flowers, candles and banners reading “Urumqi, November 24, who died rest in peace” to commemorate. Remembrance of 10 people killed in a residential building fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
One protester who gave only his last name, Gao, said one of his friends was beaten by police, and two of his friends 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 in the process and left the protest barefoot.
According to Zhao, the protesters chanted slogans such as “Xi Jinping, quit, Communist Party, quit”, “Open Xinjiang, liberate China”, “I don’t want PCR tests, I want freedom” and “Freedom”. Journalism “.
About 100 policemen lined up, Zhao said, to prevent some protesters from gathering or leaving, and buses with more policemen arrived later.
Another protester, who gave his surname only as Shaw, said there was a crowd larger than thousands of protesters, but that police resisted and allowed protesters to pass on the sidewalk.
Posts about the protest on social media in China were quickly deleted, as the Chinese Communist Party usually does to stifle criticism.
Earlier on Saturday, authorities in the Xinjiang region opened up parts of Urumqi after residents staged extraordinary late-night protests against the city’s strict lockdown that has lasted for more than three months. Many claimed that obstructions from virus control measures made the fire worse. It took rescuers three hours to put out the flames, but officials denied the claims, saying there were no barricades in the building and residents were allowed to leave.
During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents’ doors were locked elsewhere in the city, including one who spoke to the Associated Press who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. Many in Urumqi believe that these brute force methods may have prevented residents from escaping in Thursday’s fire and that the official death toll was underestimated.
Anger boiled over after officials in the city of Urumqi held a news conference about the fire and appeared to blame tower residents for the deaths.
“The ability of some residents to save themselves was very weak,” said Li Wensheng, the Urumqi fire chief.
Highlighting dissenting voices, police announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for posting “false information” about the death toll online.
Late on Friday, Urumqi residents walked peacefully in large puffy winter jackets in the cold winter night.
Videos of the protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “open up, open up”. They spread quickly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. According to the videos, in some scenes people shouted and pushed rows of men in white hazmat suits worn by local government employees and epidemic prevention volunteers.
By Saturday, most of them had been removed by censors. The Associated Press could not independently verify all of the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals said large-scale protests took place Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.
The Associated Press found two videos of protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, policemen in hospital masks and gowns clash with screaming protesters. Elsewhere, a protester spoke to a crowd about their demands. It is unclear how widespread the protests are.
The protests, along with public online anger, are the latest signs of frustration with China’s intensified approach to controlling COVID-19. It is the only major country in the world still fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.
Given China’s massive security apparatus, protests are risky anywhere in the country, but they are unusual in Xinjiang, which has been the target of a brutal security crackdown for years. Large numbers of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were herded into a vast network of camps and prisons, fueling fear that grips the region to this day.
Most of the protesters featured in the videos were Han Chinese. A Uyghur woman living in Urumqi said it was because the Uyghurs were too afraid to take to the streets despite their anger.
“The Han Chinese know that they will not be punished if they speak out against the lockdown,” she said, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals from her family. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to prison or to camps.”
In a video, which the AP could not independently verify, Yang Fasen, a senior Urumqi official, told angry protesters he would open up low-risk areas of the city the next morning.
That promise was fulfilled the next day, when authorities in Urumqi announced that residents of low-risk areas would be allowed to move freely through their neighbourhoods. However, many other neighborhoods are still under lockdown.
Officials also triumphantly announced Saturday that they had essentially achieved “zero COVID-19 from the community,” meaning there was no longer community spread and new infections were only detected in people already infected with the virus. Sanitary control, such as that in a central quarantine facility.
Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can reach that speed,” one user wrote on Weibo.
On Chinese social media, where trending topics are manipulated by censors, the “zero-covid-19” ad was the most popular hashtag on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok. The apartment fire and protests have become a catalyst for public outrage, with millions sharing posts questioning China’s pandemic controls or mocking the country’s strict propaganda and censorship.
The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. At the start of the pandemic, its citizens praised China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 as reducing deaths at a time when other countries were reeling from devastating waves of infection. Chinese leader Xi Jinping saw the approach as an example of the Chinese regime’s superiority over the West and especially the United States, which has politicized the use of face masks and struggled to enforce widespread lockdowns.
But support for “zero COVID” has faded in recent months as tragedies spark public outrage. Last week, the city government of Zhengzhou, central Henan Province, apologized for the death of a 4-month-old baby. She died after medical treatment was delayed because she suffered from vomiting and diarrhea in a hotel quarantine in Zhengzhou.
The government has doubled down on its policy while easing some measures, such as shortening quarantine periods. The central government has repeatedly said that it will stick to “zero COVID-19”.
Many in Xinjiang have been locked down since August. Most were not allowed to leave their homes, and some reported squalid conditions including sporadic food deliveries that left residents hungry. On Friday, the city recorded 220 new cases of infection, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic.
The Uyghur woman from Urumqi said she has been stuck in her apartment since August 8, not even allowed to open her window. Residents of Friday’s neighborhood defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest. she joined.
“No more stopping! No more downtime! They cried.
Kang reported from Beijing.