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Protests across China as anger mounts over zero-Covid policy

AFP . Shanghai
27 Nov 2022 11:46:32 | Update: 27 Nov 2022 21:53:11
Protests across China as anger mounts over zero-Covid policy
People gather on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, to protest against China's zero-Covid policy — AFP Photo

Hundreds of people took to the streets in China's major cities on Sunday to protest against the country's zero-Covid policy in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state.

China's hardline virus strategy is stoking public frustration, with many growing weary of snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns.

A deadly fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China's Xinjiang region, has become a fresh catalyst for public anger, with many blaming lengthy Covid lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts. Authorities deny the claims.

On Sunday night, between 300 to 400 people gathered on the banks of a river in the capital Beijing for several hours, with some shouting, "We are all Xinjiang people! Go Chinese people!"

AFP reporters at the scene described the crowd singing the national anthem and listening to speeches, while on the other side of the canal bank, a line of police cars waited.

In the central megacity of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged, multiple live streams that were quickly censored showed crowds walking through the streets cheering and filming on their phones.

And in downtown Shanghai, AFP saw police clashing with groups of protesters, as officers tried to move people away from the site of an earlier demonstration on Wulumuqi street -- named after the Mandarin for Urumqi.

Crowds that had gathered overnight -- some of whom chanted "Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!" -- were dispersed by morning.

But in the afternoon, hundreds gathered in the same area to hold what appeared to be a silent protest, an eyewitness told AFP.

Social media videos from the area that appeared to be taken in the late afternoon showed the crowd chanting.

Footage from several different angles showed a man holding a bouquet of yellow flowers being dragged into a police car at one intersection as onlookers shouted.

By evening, dozens of policemen in yellow high-vis jackets formed a thick line, cordoning off the streets where the protests had taken place.

AFP saw multiple people arrested as officers told people to leave the area.

A foreigner who wished to remain anonymous told AFP he had seen a standoff as police directed a crowd away from Wulumuqi street.

"The police appeared to be looking for individuals suspected of leading the protests," he said.

"The atmosphere was very tense, but there was also excitement and energy... Protesters directed their anger at the police and the party, using the 'step down!' refrain of the last few days."

Footage of protests allegedly taken in major cities Guangzhou and Chengdu were also spreading online Sunday night, but AFP was unable to independently verify them.

University protests

Earlier in the day, hundreds also rallied at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University to protest against lockdowns, one witness who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.

At 11:30am students started holding up signs at the entrance of the canteen, then more and more people joined, they said, estimating there were 200-300 people present, some holding blank bits of paper.

Participants sang the national anthem and "the Internationale" -- a standard of the international communist movement -- and chanted "freedom will prevail" and "no to lockdowns, we want freedom", they said.

A video that appeared to be taken in the same location showed students shouting, "Democracy and the rule of law, freedom of expression", and was quickly taken down.

Other vigils took place overnight at universities across China, including one at Tsinghua's neighbour Peking University, an undergraduate participant told AFP.

Speaking anonymously as well for fear of repercussions, he said some anti-Covid slogans had been daubed on a wall in the university.

Some of the words echoed a banner that was hung over a Beijing bridge just before the Communist Party Congress in October.

"I heard people yelling: 'No to Covid tests, yes to freedom!'," he said, adding there were between 100 and 200 people there.

Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper.

Hashtags relating to the protest were censored on Weibo, and video platforms Duoyin and Kuaishou were scrubbed of footage.

Videos from campuses in Xi'an, Guangzhou and Wuhan showing similar protests also spread on social media. AFP was unable to verify the footage independently.

'Lift lockdowns!'

China reported 39,506 domestic Covid-19 cases Sunday, a record high but small compared to caseloads in the West at the height of the pandemic.

The protests come against a backdrop of mounting public frustration over China's zero-tolerance approach to the virus and follow sporadic rallies in other cities.

Hundreds of people massed outside Urumqi's government offices after the deadly fire, chanting "Lift lockdowns!," footage partially verified by AFP shows.

AFP verified the video by geolocating local landmarks but was unable to specify exactly when the protests occurred.

It is the latest in several high-profile cases where emergency services have been allegedly slowed down by Covid lockdowns, which have catalysed public opposition.

The Qatar World Cup has also proved a flashpoint, as scenes of maskless fans provoked outrage on social media.

China's state broadcaster has started cutting close-ups of supporters and replacing them with shots of officials or players.