People opposed to China’s stringent Covid restrictions have protested in cities across the country in the biggest wave of civil disobedience on the mainland since Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.
Protests triggered by a deadly apartment fire in the far west of the country last week took place on Sunday in cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou, according to footage shared on social media, in defiance of a series of heavy-handed arrests of demonstrators on Saturday night.
In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totalling at least 1,000 people were gathered along the Chinese capital’s 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.
In an unusually bold act that appeared to indicate the level of people’s desperation, a crowd in Shanghai late on Saturday night called for the removal of the Communist party and Xi during a standoff with police, chanting: “Communist party! Step down! Xi Jinping! Step down!” Chinese people usually refrain from criticising the party and its leaders in public for fear of reprisals.
The protests erupted on Friday in Urumqi, the regional capital of the far west Xinjiang region, after footage of a fire in a residential building that killed at least 10 people the day before led to accusations that a Covid lockdown was a factor in the death toll.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny Covid measures had hampered escape and rescue. Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.
In Shanghai, China’s biggest city and a global financial hub, crowds returned to Middle Urumqi Road – named after the Xinjiang capital – for a second day on Sunday, despite a series of widely documented arrests the day before.
Police closed the street to non-local traffic and made arrests, according to videos online. A photograph which quickly went viral on Sunday night appeared to show police removing the Middle Urumqi Road street sign.
Late on Sunday, a BBC journalist was seen on camera being “beaten and kicked by police” before being arrested in the city. Footage on social media showed Edward Lawrence being dragged to the ground in handcuffs, while he was seen saying in another video: “Call the consulate now.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC is extremely concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed while covering the protests in Shanghai.
“He was held for several hours before being released,” the spokesperson said, adding that Lawrence had been covering the protests as an accredited journalist.
Lawrence, a senior journalist and camera operator for the BBC’s China bureau, was tweeting from the scene of the protest in Shanghai on Sunday morning UK time.
He wrote: “I’m at the scene of last night’s extraordinary anti Covid-zero protest in Shanghai. Many people are gathered here quietly watching. Lots of cops.”
On Saturday, people in Shanghai had chanted “No PCR tests, we want freedom!” followed by rounds of repeated calls for “Freedom! Freedom!”
“We just want our basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far,” a 26-year-old protester in Shanghai who declined to be identified told Reuters.
Widespread in-person protests are rare in China, where dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent their frustrations on social media where they play cat-and-mouse games with censors.
Photos and videos circulated on social media seen by the Guardian were quickly removed by internet censors, but many continued to circulate on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
Crowdsourced lists on social media claim protests have been documented at as many as 50 Chinese universities over the weekend.
At Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, students shouted “freedom will prevail” and called for an end to lockdowns on Sunday, while people holding a peaceful riverside vigil defied police orders to move on. A student told AFP that some students had held up a blank piece of paper near the canteen at about 11.30am, and that 200 to 300 people had joined them by the afternoon. Blank sheets have become a symbol of the burgeoning protests.
According to videos shared online, protesters shouted: “This is not normal life, we’ve had enough. Our lives were not like this before.” Others chanted: “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”
A large crowd gathered in the south-western metropolis of Chengdu, according to videos on social media, where they also held up blank sheets of paper and chanted: “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors,” a reference to Xi, who has scrapped presidential term limits. People shouted: “Give me liberty or give me death!” and in Wuhan, pandemic barricades were pushed down.
Another city that saw public dissent was Lanzhou in the north-west, where residents on Saturday overturned Covid staff tents and smashed testing booths, posts on social media showed. Protesters said they were put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive.
According to photos and videos on Sina Weibo that were later deleted, in the Communication University of China at Nanjing, in eastern China, two students held up white sheets of paper on a campus plaza on Saturday.
Related protests at the University of Hong Kong, where mainland Chinese students held flowers and handed out flyers about the Urumqi fire, were quickly cracked down on after the university called the police.
China has stuck with Xi’s zero-Covid policy even as much of the world has lifted most restrictions. While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday, prompting yet more lockdowns in cities across the country. Beijing has defended the policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system.
Speaking to US political talkshows on Sunday, Dr Anthony Fauci, the outgoing director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described China’s approach to Covid as “very severe and rather draconian”.
“A prolonged lockdown without any seeming purpose or endgame to it … really doesn’t make public health sense. In many respects it baffles me,” Fauci said.
Assistant Prof Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist formerly with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said that although widespread, the Chinese protests were unlikely to threaten the central government. He expected the government would use appeasement and crackdowns to defuse the discontent.
“One needs to observe whether the anti-Xi slogans will spread, but Xi could shift the responsibility [to local authorities] as [the central government] can say it’s the local governments who have over-enforced” the Covid curbs, he said, referring to a government announcement on 11 November that eased some restrictions and urged local officials to refrain from indiscriminate Covid restrictions.
On Sunday, an editorial in the Communist party People’s Daily said that the “war” against the pandemic must go on, while decrying the over-implementation of curbs.
Reuters contributed to this report