China moved quickly to quell protests that erupted across the country over the weekend, deploying police forces to major protest sites and tightening online censorship.
The protests were sparked by anger over the country’s increasingly costly zero-Covid policy, but as numbers surged at demonstrations in several major cities, the range of grievances were also aired – with some calling for more democracy and freedom.
Among the thousands of protesters, hundreds even called for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who for nearly three years oversaw a strategy of mass testing, brute-force lockdowns, forced quarantines and digital tracking that has had a devastating human impact. and economic cost.
Here’s what we know.
The protests were sparked by a deadly fire last Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of the far western region of Xinjiang. The blaze killed at least 10 people and injured nine in an apartment building – sparking public fury after videos of the incident appeared to show lockdown measures had delayed firefighters from reaching victims .
The city had been in lockdown for more than 100 days, with residents unable to leave the area and many forced to stay at home.
Videos showed Urumqi residents marching towards a government building and chanting an end to the lockdown on Friday. The following morning, the local government said it would lift the lockdown in stages – but did not provide a specific timetable or respond to protests.
This failed to quell public anger and protests quickly spread beyond Xinjiang, with residents of cities and universities across China also taking to the streets.
So far, CNN has verified 20 protests that took place in 15 Chinese cities, including the capital Beijing and the financial hub of Shanghai.
In Shanghai on Saturday, hundreds of people gathered for a candlelight vigil on Urumqi Road, named for the city in Xinjiang, to mourn the victims of the fires. Many held up blank white sheets of paper – a symbolic protest against censorship – and chanted: “Need human rights, need freedom”.
Some also shouted at Xi to ‘resign’ and sang The Internationale, a socialist anthem used as a call to action in protests around the world for over a century. It was also sung at pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square before a brutal crackdown by armed troops in 1989.
China’s zero Covid policies have been felt particularly acutely in Shanghai, where a two-month lockdown earlier this year left many without access to food, medical care or other basic supplies – sowing deep public resentment.
By Sunday evening, mass protests had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, where thousands of residents called not only for an end to Covid restrictions, but more remarkably, for political freedoms. Residents of some closed neighborhoods tore down barriers and took to the streets.
Demonstrations also took place on campuses, including at the prestigious institutions of Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the Communication University of China in Nanjing.
In hong kong, where a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 has been used to stifle dissent, dozens of people gathered Monday evening in the city’s central district for a vigil. Some held up blank sheets of paper, while others left flowers and held signs commemorating those killed in the Urumqi fire.
Public protests are extremely rare in China, where the Communist Party has tightened its grip on all aspects of life, launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, wiped out much of civil society and built a high-tech surveillance state. .
The mass surveillance system is even stricter in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is accused of detaining up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in camps where former detainees say they were physically abused and sexually.
an overwhelming United Nations report in September describes the region’s “pervasive” surveillance network, with police databases containing hundreds of thousands of files containing biometric data such as face scans and eyeballs.
China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in the region.
While protests do happen in China, they rarely happen on this scale, or so directly target the central government and the country’s leader, said Maria Repnikova, an associate professor at Georgia State University who studies politics and the media. Chinese.
“This is a different kind of protest to the more localized protests we have seen reoccur over the past two decades and which tend to focus their demands and demands on local officials and on societal and economic issues. very targeted,” she said. Instead, this time the protests have expanded to include “the sharper airing of political grievances alongside concerns about Covid-19 lockdowns”.
In recent months, there have been growing signs that the public has lost patience with zero-Covid, after nearly three years of economic hardship and disruption to daily life.
Isolated pockets of protest erupted in October, with anti-zero-Covid slogans appearing on the walls of public toilets and in various Chinese cities, inspired by a banner hung by a lone protester on an overpass in Beijing just days before Xi cements a third term in power.
Earlier in November, larger protests took place in Guangzhou, with residents defying lockdown orders to knock down barriers and cheer as they took to the streets.
While protests in several parts of China appear to have largely dispersed peacefully over the weekend, authorities responded more forcefully in some cities.
Protests in Shanghai on Saturday sparked scuffles between protesters and police, with arrests made in the early hours of the morning. Undeterred, protesters returned on Sunday, where they were met with a more aggressive response – videos show chaotic scenes of police pushing, dragging and beating protesters.
The videos have since been removed from the Chinese internet by censors.
A Shanghai protester told CNN he was among approximately 80 to 110 people detained in the city on Saturday night. He described being transferred to a police station, having his phone confiscated and having biometric information collected before being released the following day.
CNN cannot independently verify the number of those arrested.
Hear protesters in China call for Xi Jinping to step down
Two foreign reporters were also briefly detained. BBC journalist Edward Lawrence was arrested in Shanghai on Sunday evening, with a BBC spokesman saying he was “beaten and kicked by police” while covering the protests. He has since been released.
On Monday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Lawrence did not identify himself as a journalist before he was arrested.
Michael Peuker, China correspondent for Swiss public broadcaster RTS, was reporting live when he said several police officers approached him. He then posted on Twitter that the officers took him and his cameraman to a vehicle before releasing them.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman deflected questions about the protests on Monday, telling a reporter who asked if the widespread protests of public anger would prompt China to consider ending zero-Covid: “What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened”.
He also claimed that social media posts linking the Xinjiang fire to Covid policies had “ulterior motives” and that authorities had “made adjustments based on realities on the ground”. Asked about protesters calling on Xi to stand down, he replied: “I am not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
State media did not directly cover the protests – but praised zero-Covid, with one newspaper calling it “the most scientifically effective approach” on Sunday.
In recent days, vigils and demonstrations in solidarity with protesters in China have taken place around the world, including in the UK, Canada and Australia.
As news of the protests made international headlines, foreign government officials and organizations expressed support for the protesters and criticized Beijing’s response.
“We’re watching this closely, as you’d expect,” US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said Monday. “We continue to stand up and support the right to peaceful protest.”
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British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told reporters that the Chinese government should “listen to the voice of its own people…when they say they are not happy with the restrictions placed on them”.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) also said on Monday it condemned the “intolerable intimidation and aggression” directed at member journalists in China, in an apparent reference to detained foreign journalists.