TAIPEI, Taiwan — A protest against China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies resurfaced in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon even after police cleared away hundreds of demonstrators in the early morning with force and pepper spray.
Crowds stood and filmed as police started shoving at people who had gathered in the street and shouted, “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom!” according to an witness who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.
Since Friday people have held protests across China, where street demonstrations are extremely rare. But anger and frustration have flared over the deaths from a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi that the public believes was caused by excessive lockdown measures that delayed rescue.
A crowdsourced list on social media showed that there were demonstrations in 50 universities. Videos posted on social media that said they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south and at least five other cities showed protesters tussling with police in white protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighborhoods. The Associated Press could not independently verify all the protests.
Online, videos from the scenes quickly emerged. Some of the most shared videos came from Shanghai, which had borne a devastating lockdown in spring in which people struggled to secure groceries and medicines and were forcefully taken into centralized quarantine.
In the dark early hours of Sunday, standing on the road named after a city in Xinjiang where at least 10 people had just died in an apartment fire, protesters chanted “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down.”
A protester who chanted with the crowd confirmed that people did shout for the removal of Xi Jinping, China’s leader — words that many would never have thought would have been said in one of China’s biggest cities.
Hundreds of protesters had gathered along a street in Shanghai starting around midnight on Saturday. They split into two different sections of Middle Urumqi Road. There was one group that was more calm and brought candles, flowers and signs honoring those who died in the apartment fire. The other, said a protester who declined to be named out of fear of arrest, was more active, shouting slogans and singing the national anthem.
The energy was encouraging, the protester said. People called for an official apology for deaths in the Urumqi fire. Others discussed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in which the ruling Communist Party had ordered troops to fire on student protesters. One ethnic Uyghur individual shared his experiences of discrimination and police violence.
“Everyone thinks that Chinese people are afraid to come out and protest, that they don’t have any courage,” said the protester who said it was his first time demonstrating. “Actually in my heart, I also thought of this. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.”
At first the scene was peaceful. Around 3 a.m., it turned violent. Police started surrounding the protesters and broke up the first more active group before they came for the second that had brought flowers. The goal was to move people off the main street.
A protester who gave only his family name, Zhao, said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper sprayed. He said police stomped 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.
Zhao says protesters yelled slogans including “(We) do not want PCR (tests), but want freedom,” in reference to the protest staged by a lone man in Beijing ahead of the 20th Communist Party congress in Beijing in October.
After three years of harsh lockdowns that have left people confined in their homes for weeks at a time, the Xinjiang fire appears to have finally broken through the Chinese public’s ability to tolerate the harsh measures.
China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 with strict lockdowns and mass testing was hailed by its own citizens as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections. Xi had held up the approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system in comparison to the West and especially the U.S., which had politicized the use of masks and had difficulties enacting widespread lockdowns.
In recent weeks, that attitude has changed as tragedies under excessive enforcement of “zero COVID” have piled up.
In Shanghai hundreds of police stood in lines, forming clusters around protesters in a strategy to clear them out, protesters said. Through the effort of a few hours, the police broke apart the protesters into smaller groups, moving them out from Urumqi Road.
By 5 a.m. Sunday, the police had managed to clear the crowd.
The protester who declined to be named said that he saw multiple people being taken away, forced by police into vans, but could not identify them. A crowdsourced attempt online has so far identified six people being hauled away, based on images and videos from the night, as well as information by those who knew the detained. Among the detained is a young woman who is only known by her nickname “Little He.”
Posters circulated online calling for further action in Shanghai and in Chengdu, a major city in China’s southwest, on Sunday evening. Shanghai’s protest called for the release of those taken away.
Meanwhile, two cities in China’s northwest, where residents have been confined to their homes for up to four months, eased some anti-virus controls Sunday after public protests Friday.
Urumqi, where the fire occurred, is a city of 4.8 million people and capital of the Xinjiang region, as well as the smaller city of Korla were preparing to reopen markets and other businesses in areas deemed at low risk of virus transmission and to restart bus, train and airline service, state media reported.
Associated Press writer Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.