Protests against Covid restrictions in China intensified this weekend, following a fire that killed 10 people in an apartment block in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, in the west of the country.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Shanghai to remember the victims and protest the restrictions. Many of those present demanded the resignation of President Xi Jinping.
The BBC witnessed at least three people being taken away in police cars.
Many point to confinement in buildings as the cause of deaths in the fire.
While Chinese officials deny that was the cause, Urumqi officials issued a rare apology on Friday (11/25), promising to “restore order” by gradually removing restrictions.
‘Xi Jinping, resign’
At the protest in Shanghai, China’s biggest city and world financial center, some people were seen lighting candles and leaving flowers for the victims.
Others chanted slogans like “Xi Jinping, resign” and “Communist Party, resign”. Some also held blank banners.
Demonstrations like these are uncommon in China, where any direct criticism of the government and the president could result in harsh reprisals.
One protester told the BBC he was “shocked and excited” to see people in the streets, saying it was the first time he had seen large-scale dissent in China.
He also said the lockdowns made him “sad, angry and hopeless” and prevented him from seeing his sick mother, who was undergoing treatment for cancer.
Another protester told the BBC that officers were asked how they felt about the protests and the response was “like you”. But, he added, “they wear their uniforms, so they’re doing their jobs.”
Some protesters reported acts of violence, with one telling the AP news agency that one of his friends was assaulted by police at the scene, while two others were hit with pepper spray.
While the situation in the area had calmed down on Sunday morning, the BBC noted an increased police presence in the protest area, with several dozen police, private security and plainclothes officers on the streets.
Elsewhere, at several Chinese universities, photos and videos of students protesting Saturday night were circulated on social media. Most of the protesters appeared to be concentrated at Nanjing University of Communications.
Videos of the protests are difficult to independently verify, but many of them portray explicit and open criticism of the government and its leader.
The protests are the latest chapter in a series of demonstrations against China’s “covid zero” measures.
These protests have been increasingly bold, both in criticism of the government and President Xi Jinping.
The covid-zero strategy is the latest policy of its kind among the world’s major economies and is due in part to China’s relatively low vaccination levels and effort to protect the elderly.
Last-minute lockdowns have sparked anger across the country, and broader restrictions have sparked recent violent protests from Zhengzhou to Guangzhou.
Despite strict measures, the number of cases in China this week has reached an all-time high since the start of the pandemic.
Analysis by Tessa Wong, BBC Asia Digital Reporter
The Urumqi fire was a nightmare scenario for many Chinese people who have found themselves under widespread restrictions in recent months, locked in their apartments by some accounts.
Authorities have disputed these allegations, but that hasn’t stopped public outrage and anxiety from spreading.
The incident has become the latest tipping point in China’s growing frustration. Millions are tired of three years of movement restrictions and daily covid testing.
Anger has spread to all corners of China, from big cities to remote regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, and has galvanized all sectors of society, including university students, factory workers and ordinary citizens.
As this anger grows, protests against Covid measures become increasingly common. But even this weekend’s demonstrations are unusual in this new normal, both in number and in the outspokenness of their criticism of the government and President Xi Jinping.
Taking to the streets en masse with hundreds of people calling for President Xi’s resignation was considered unthinkable until recently.
But after a recent dramatic protest on a Beijing bridge that shocked many, a precedent appears to have been set for the expression of more open and forceful dissent.
Others also chose to wave the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem, whose lyrics champion revolutionary ideals and urge people to “rise up, rise up”.
It’s a show of patriotism that can also be read as an expression of solidarity with Chinese compatriots suffering from Xi’s Covid-zero policy and a call to action.