Angered by COVID lockdowns, protests spread across China as some call for Xi’s ouster
Angered by China’s strict anti-virus lockdowns, protesters took to the streets in more than a dozen cities on Sunday, to call for greater freedom, with some demanding President Xi Jinping’s ouster, in the biggest challenge to Communist Party rule in decades, according to media reports and video footage from social media posts of people on the ground.
Riot police used pepper spray to disperse protesters in Shanghai who called for an end to one-party rule, but hours later people gathered again at the same spot, the Associated Press reported. University students on a dozen campuses also joined the demonstrations.
A crowd of around 1,000 students gathered at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Xi Jinping’s alma mater, on Sunday, after a student stood holding up a blank sheet of paper, widely regarded as a mute and ironic protest against authoritarian rule and lack of freedom of speech.
“We want democracy and the rule of law!” they chant in video clips posted to Twitter by former 1989 Tiananmen Square protester Zhou Fengsuo. “We want freedom of expression!”
The protesters also sang the communist anthem “The Internationale,” which was also frequently heard during mass student-led protests in 1989, as well as China’s national anthem, which contains the line “rise up, you who are unwilling to be slaves!”
Others screamed: “China is abnormal! Enough is enough!”
The protests were sparked by the delayed response to a fire on Thursday that killed at least 10 people in Urumqi, the capital of the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where strict anti-virus restrictions have been in place for more than 100 days.
The fire lit a fuse of pent-up frustration among millions of Chinese who have had to cope with the country’s rigid “zero-COVID” restrictions, which included extended lockdowns of entire cities and forced home isolation or quarantine for anyone suspected of catching the illness, together with constant COVID-19 tests and mass tracking of the population via the Health Code smartphone app.
In another clip posted by Feng, a woman addresses a huge crowd.
“I think if we don’t speak out for fear of being arrested, then the public will be very disappointed in us,” she says. “As a Tsinghua student, I think I would regret that for the rest of my life.”
Feng said the demonstration was a further escalation of nationwide protests that were sparked Saturday by a deadly apartment fire in the Xinjiang regional capital Urumqi on Nov. 24 that many blamed on strict lockdown measures under Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy of rolling lockdowns, compulsory tests and mass tracking of citizens via the Health Code smartphone app.
“This is another escalation of the ongoing nationwide protest movement,” Feng commented. “They are protesting in broad daylight at Tsinghua University, which is one of the most strictly controlled by the Communist Party.”
“The protest was triggered by a young woman holding up a blank sheet of paper, and many students joined in, showing what people are looking for right now,” he wrote.
According to social media footage, demonstrations were also spotted at Peking University, Nanjing Communication University, Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, Hunan University, Sichuan International Studies University, Ocean University of China, the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Hong Kong Baptist University.
Hundreds of other colleges including Suzhou University, Wuhan Conservatory of Music and the Huazhong Agricultural University also had protests with blank sheets of paper, while students at Hong Kong Baptist University set up a “democracy wall” for students to express themselves.
‘Remove the traitor-dictator Xi Jinping!’
Protesters gathered for a second day on Urumqi Road in Shanghai, as the authorities deployed large numbers of police officers who swept protesters back with linked arms to clear the streets and set up a roadblock at the intersection of Anfu, Wuyuan and Urumqi Roads.
A social media user with the handle “Ms. Li is not your teacher” posted a video clip of an angry crowd at around 7.00 p.m. on Sunday as some of their number were arrested just for holding up a blank sheet of paper.
In Beijing, a Twitter post of a crowd of at least 100 chanted: “We want freedom, equality, democracy, rule of law,” “No dictatorship,” and “No personality cult!”
In several clips, people were filmed chanting lines similar to those emblazoned on a banner hung on a highway flyover by the Oct. 13 “Bridge Man” protester last month: “Remove the traitor-dictator Xi Jinping!” they chanted.
“Food, not PCR tests. Freedom, not lockdowns. Reforms, not the Cultural Revolution. Elections not leaders,” they shouted, adding: “Dignity, not lies. Citizens, not slaves.”
In the southwestern city of Chengdu, a candlelight vigil turned into a gathering of people chanting, “Freedom of press, freedom of expression,” according to another video posted on social media. Another video clip from Chengdu showed what appeared to be plainclothes policemen beating and arresting protesters.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.