by Michael Zhang and Matthew Walsh

Angry crowds took to the streets of Shanghai early Sunday calling for an end to lockdowns, as China grapples with mounting public protests against its zero-Covid policy.

A deadly fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, spurred an outpouring of anger as many social media users blamed lengthy Covid lockdowns in the city for hampering rescue efforts.

Shanghai. Photo: Vivian Wu screenshot via Twitter.

In Shanghai’s central Wulumuqi street, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, in a video widely shared on social media and geolocated by AFP, some protesters can be heard chanting “Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!” in a rare display of public opposition to the country’s top leadership.

Video taken by an eyewitness on Sunday showed people gathering in central Shanghai to mourn the 10 victims killed in the Urumqi fire.

Other vigils took place at universities across the country, according to posts widely circulating on social media.

A person who attended the Shanghai protests but asked not to be named told AFP they arrived at the rally at 2:00 am to see that “a group of people was mourning and sending flowers on the sidewalk, another group of people was chanting slogans”.

“There were minor clashes but in all, civilised law enforcement,” they added.

“At last a couple of people were taken away by the police for unknown reasons.”

Authorities were swift to curb online discussion of the protest, with phrases related to the visit scrubbed from the Twitter-like Weibo platform almost immediately after footage of the rallies emerged.

The protests come against a backdrop of mounting public frustration over the Chinese government’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid and follow sporadic rallies in other cities.

Lockdowns and mass testing

China is the last major economy wedded to a zero-Covid strategy, with authorities wielding snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing to snuff out new outbreaks as they emerge.

Shanghai, a city of more than 25 million people, endured a gruelling two-month lockdown earlier this year that saw widespread food shortages.

A number of high-profile cases in which emergency services have been allegedly slowed down by Covid lockdowns, leading to deaths, have catalysed public opposition to the measures.

“I’m also the one throwing myself off the roof, trapped in an overturned (quarantine) bus, breaking out of isolation at the Foxconn factory,” read one recent viral comment referencing several recent incidents blamed on zero-Covid strictures.

Following the deadly Urumqi fire, hundreds of people massed outside the city’s government offices, chanting: “Lift lockdowns!”, footage partially verified by AFP shows.

Photo: Douyin screenshot.

In another clip, dozens of people are seen marching through a neighbourhood in the east of the city, shouting the same slogan before facing off with a line of hazmat-clad officials and angrily rebuking security personnel.

AFP was able to verify the videos by geolocating local landmarks, but were unable to specify when exactly the protests occurred.

In the wake of the protests, officials on Saturday said the city “had basically reduced social transmissions to zero” and would “restore the normal order of life for residents in low-risk areas in a staged and orderly manner”.

University vigils

Other vigils took place overnight at universities across China, including one at the elite Peking University, an undergraduate participant told AFP. 

Speaking anonymously for fear of repercussions, he said some anti-Covid slogans had been graffitied on a wall in the university, with some words echoing those written on a banner that was hung over a Beijing bridge just before the Communist Party Congress in October. 

People had started gathering from around midnight local time, but he hadn’t dared join initially. 

“When I arrived (two hours later), I think there were at least 100 people there, maybe 200,” he said. 

“At first, they sang the ‘Internationale’. Later, some students started shouting slogans, but the reaction wasn’t particularly loud. People weren’t really sure what they should shout. But I heard people yelling: ‘No to Covid tests, yes to freedom!'”

Photos and videos he showed AFP corroborated his account. 

The students were communicating with security guards and teachers, he said, but it is unclear if they faced punishment for taking part. 

The graffiti had already been covered up when he arrived. 

Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper. 

Hashtags relating to the protest were censored on Weibo, and video platforms Duoyin and Kuaishou were scrubbed of any videos. 

Videos from Xi’an, Guangzhou and Wuhan also spread on social media, showing similar small protests. AFP was unable to verify the footage independently. 

China reported 39,506 domestic Covid cases Sunday — a record high but comparatively small compared to caseloads in the West at the height of the pandemic.

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