By James Pomfret and Martin Quin Pollard
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - When Yang, a Shanghai office worker, saw video clips of a burning building in western China, a disaster in which 10 people were killed, she said she could not contain her anger over tough COVID-19 measures three years into the pandemic.
Watching a World Cup soccer match in a Shanghai bar two days later with her boyfriend, she spotted calls on WeChat, China's ubiquitous messaging app, for a public gathering to mourn the victims. She rushed over by bicycle to attend.
"Things reached a tipping point, we had to come out," Yang, 32, who declined to be identified by her full name given fear of reprisals, told Reuters.
Six young people who spoke to Reuters from four cities across China - all dipping their toes in activism for the first time - describe a mix of elation, fear and defiance after a restive weekend and a tightening of security.
While united against China's stifling "zero-COVID" measures, all six also spoke of a yearning for broader political freedoms, 33 years after students occupied China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
When Yang arrived at the gathering, small crowds were heckling ranks of police deployed beneath the mottled plane trees of Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region where the fire occurred.
Authorities have denied the deaths in the fire were linked to lockdown measures that blocked the victims' escape.
"We don't want masks, we want freedoms," Yang chanted, using her phone to share pictures, videos and posts over Twitter, Telegram and Instagram - apps not accessible on the mainland without a virtual private network, that she'd installed.
As the hours wore on, chants grew bolder.
"Down with the Chinese Communist Party," people chanted, some casting off their masks. "Down with Xi Jinping!"
But much of the public frustration is directed at President Xi's signature zero-COVID policy, rather than at him or the ruling party.
While many in China have supported the policy, which has spared it from the ravages of a virus that has killed millions elsewhere, significant frustration has built as a new wave of infections has led to the return of widespread lockdowns.
A senior health official said on Tuesday public complaints about the curbs stemmed from overzealous implementation rather than from the measures themselves, and authorities would continue fine-tuning policy to reduce the impact on society.
China has relied mainly on domestically produced vaccines, which some studies have suggested are not as effective as some foreign ones, meaning lifting COVID measures could come with big risks, some experts say.
Considering herself part of a small "liberal bubble" in Shanghai - China's most cosmopolitan city - Yang did not imagine so many people sharing her frustrations in a country that has grown increasingly authoritarian in the decade since Xi assumed power.
"This is the first time in my life I've done something like this," she said. "In my heart, I've murmured such things a thousand times, but hearing these slogans suddenly chanted by so many real people was exciting and shocking to me."
For many in other cities, the COVID lockdowns have exacerbated a sense of powerlessness.
"The protests are happening because under the COVID prevention measures people can't satisfy their fundamental needs to survive," said Jiayin, who took part in a demonstration in Guangzhou, a southern city with some of China's highest recent infection numbers.
There, over the weekend, people thronged a bridge connecting two districts under lockdown and sang a Cantonese song called "Sky" by Hong Kong band Beyond, which was hugely popular among Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators in 2019.
More than 2,000 km to the north, students at elite universities were also mobilising.
Cheng, a 23-year-old social science student who stood with hundreds on the campus of Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, Xi's alma mater, stressed that it was the duty of the elite to lead in pushing for social justice.
"I'm very proud that I can stand up with the best young people in China and speak out for everyone," said Cheng.
She and other young protesters are tech savvy, with many communicating over Telegram in amorphous, anonymous and decentralised acts of defiance, with echoes of Hong Kong's leaderless pro-democracy protests in 2019.
They have found support from overseas groups and online organisers, providing know-how on information security and how to evade censors.
The morning after her protest, Yang attended to chores at home after snatching three hours sleep then spent the day glued to her phone, posting incessantly. At times, she scolded friends who urged her to be "rational" and avoid the protests.
In one post, she wrote: "In an irrational reality, being rational and using logical words are far, far from adequate."
"My brain felt overloaded with information, and my mood wasn't stable," she said.
With police in various cities now checking people's phones for apps like Telegram, however, and summoning some people for interviews, Yang said she would lie low for now, using a clean "burner" phone to go out with.
"At this stage it's better to wait for a while."
Despite the risks, Dai'an, who identifies herself as a feminist and lives in the southwestern city of Chengdu, says she is driven by a "very simple sense of justice".
"The worst is that you'll be locked up right? But it's better than facing the reality day by day and then not being able to do anything, and then you feel sorry for yourself."
She attended a protest on Wangping Street, a location chosen because its name means "looking at ping", an allusion to Xi Jinping.
"I don't feel like I'm making history," said Cheng. "But we live in history every day. I will always remember that."
(Reporting by James Pomfret, Martin Quin Pollard, and Jessie Pang; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Tony Munroe)