Chinese protests spread over government’s Covid restrictions

Protests are erupting in several major Chinese cities over President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19, an unusual show of defiance in the country as the economic and social costs of emergency lockdowns and other strict restrictions escalate.

The protests followed demonstrations on Friday in Urumqi, the capital of the remote Xinjiang region, where a deadly fire angered residents of the city who had battled a more than 100-day lockdown. Residents flooded social media with comments suggesting the government’s Covid restrictions had contributed to the delay in putting out the fire, in which officials said 10 people had died.

On Saturday, videos circulating on social media showed crowds gathering on a street in central Shanghai calling for the carnations to be removed. Videos verified by Storyful, a social media research company owned by News Corp News Corp,

parent company of the Wall Street Journal.

A video showed protesters standing around a street sign reading Wulumuqi Middle Road, named after Urumqi, suggesting the protests were inspired by protests in that city on Friday. Using expository words and call-and-response chants, they denounced Mr Xi’s Covid control strategy. Another video from the scene showed protesters standing across from police lines.

The video showed a man shouting “The Communist Party”.

Others replied: “Get out of here.”

“Xi Jinping,” one man shouted.

“Give up,” others replied.

Other videos and photos circulating online showed students protesting at the Communication University of China in the eastern city of Nanjing, with one clip showing some chanting “Long live the people”.

The Journal spoke to people in both Shanghai and Nanjing, who confirmed the clips showed events taking place in those cities on Saturday.

In parts of Beijing, the capital where security measures are among the tightest in the country, residents emerged from gated compounds earlier Saturday, with some demanding an easing of what they called excessive Covid restrictions, according to media footage of social network. and locals who participated in the actions.

On Chinese social media, users fought against censors to share images and news from the protests, along with expressions of solidarity. “Long live the people, may the dead rest in peace,” read one widely circulated message.

A person lights a candle during a vigil held in Shanghai for the victims of the Urumqi fire, in this image from a social media video.


Photo:

GAO MING/Gao Ming via REUTERS

Earlier in the week, workers at Apple’s world’s largest iPhone assembly plant clashed with police after protests broke out at the factory in central China, where the large facility employing more than 200,000 people has been under strict Covid-19 controls for weeks .

Open displays of anger are rare in China, where crackdowns on dissent have intensified over the past decade under Mr. Xi’s leadership. For protests to erupt over the same issue in multiple Chinese cities is almost unheard of, except for nationalist outbursts such as anti-Japanese demonstrations. Since the student democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the ruling party has worked to prevent public protests.

The protests highlight the growing toll on Chinese society from a Covid strategy that relies on mass testing and containment to stamp out even small outbreaks – an approach that is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

The strategy saved lives and proved effective earlier in the pandemic, which began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early 2020. It has come to support Mr Xi’s view that China has managed the virus better than the West.

However, more infectious strains of Covid-19 have since made it impossible to completely eradicate the virus. Meanwhile, frequent lockdowns have kept businesses closed and fueled youth unemployment, with China now facing its worst slowdown in decades.

In addition, there have been many reported cases of people dying from other diseases for which they could not receive treatment due to the lockdowns.

Wary of the high stakes, China’s top leadership earlier this month unveiled plans to “optimize and adjust” its strict zero-Covid policy to save the economy. But as keeping Covid under control remains a top political priority, local officials across the country doubled down on restrictions when cases surged along with the winter season.

“A lot of people are reaching the tipping point,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been closely monitoring the Covid situation in China.

Mr Huang and several other analysts compared the waves of Covid-related protests to the public sentiment surrounding the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

“If the government gets it wrong, the highly volatile situation could quickly escalate into the most serious political crisis since Tiananmen,” Mr. Huang said.

Videos from Shanghai showed police dragging some protesters while others shouted “Stop!”

At the University of Communication in Nanjing, a student told a cheering crowd: “I’m talking about my country, I’m talking about those who lost family members in [Urumqi] fire and talk about all the compatriots who died all over the country.”

A person answering the phone at Shanghai’s municipal government said no one was available to answer questions over the weekend. Calls to the Beijing municipal government and the University of Communication in Nanjing went unanswered.

Urumqi officials said after the fire last week that rescuers had to remove some obstructions, but attributed the delay in extinguishing the fire to too many cars parked in the area. On Saturday, Urumqi officials said normal activities would gradually resume in areas of the city considered low-risk for Covid.

Write to Lingling Wei at [email protected]

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