In the capital, Beijing, students at Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities, shouted “We want democratic rule of law, we want freedom of speech.”
HONG KONG — Protesters increasingly fed up with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “zero-Covid” restrictions rallied in cities across the country over the weekend, in a widespread show of resistance to Communist Party rule that has not been seen in decades.
Crowds in some of China’s biggest cities, angered by a deadly fire in the western Xinjiang region that they said was made worse by Covid restrictions, blocked roads, chanted slogans and clashed with security personnel, who made multiple arrests.
Many protesters carried candles, flowers and signs to mourn the victims of the fire, which killed at least 10 people. In the financial hub of Shanghai, which endured a grueling two-month lockdown earlier this year, video showed people being dragged, beaten and pinned to the ground by police as they protested on Urumqi Road, named for the Xinjiang capital where the fire took place.
Lesley, a 28-year-old digital editor who attended the Shanghai protest Sunday, said she was deeply moved by the courage of her fellow protesters, who she said were mostly young and tried to stay peaceful. But they were also inexperienced and the protest was unlikely to be successful, said Lesley, who asked to be referred to only by her first name for fear of arrest or retaliation.
“I think what was so valuable about this protest was that it gave me a sense of courage and strength that I hadn’t felt in a long time, and it also made young people who speak up feel that they were not alone,” she told NBC News via Xiaohongshu, China’s version of Instagram. “We were connected from an online isolated island to a real community.”
Some protests that began with demands to be freed from Covid restrictions intensified into calls for more rights and freedoms in general and even for Xi to step down. In the capital, Beijing, students at Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities and Xi’s alma mater, shouted “We want democratic rule of law, we want freedom of speech.”
Experts say the current size and scale of the protests are unlikely to pose a real threat to Xi, who gained a historic third term in office last month at the Communist Party congress. Stronger than ever after a decade in power and now surrounded exclusively by loyalists, Xi is China’s most dominant leader since Mao Zedong.
After a tumultuous weekend, the protests appeared to have died down by Monday. In Shanghai, blue barriers were erected on Urumqi Road, where there was a heavy police presence.
But public frustration with China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policy has been mounting in recent months, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Though officials have eased quarantine and testing requirements, China is also reporting record virus cases, making further lockdowns likely.
The chasm between life in China versus the rest of the world has only become more noticeable as Chinese soccer fans tuning into the World Cup comment on the maskless crowds in the stands.
“At the beginning, people [were] quite happy with the way Xi Jinping took leadership in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic,” Cabestan said, “and the government’s propaganda has been pretty efficient in demonstrating that China was doing better than the rest of the world in limiting the number of fatalities. But now it has backfired.”
Asked about the protests Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the Chinese government was adjusting its Covid measures based on the realities on the ground.
“We believe that with the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the support of the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful,” he said at a regular news briefing.
Zhao also addressed the detention of BBC journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested Sunday while covering the protests in Shanghai. In a statement, the broadcaster said Lawrence was beaten and kicked by police during his arrest, then held for several hours before being released. A video showed him instructing someone nearby to call the British Consulate as he was taken away.
Zhao disputed the BBC’s version of events, saying Lawrence did not identify himself as a journalist before his arrest.
“Local law enforcement officials were persuading people at the scene to leave, and those who refused to cooperate were then ushered away,” he said.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement Monday that journalists from multiple outlets were physically harassed by police while covering the protests, and that at least one other journalist was detained.
Victor Gao, a prominent political affairs analyst with strong links to the Communist Party, said authorities need to take the protests “seriously and really take effective measures to address the underlying legitimate concerns by those protesters.”
But he downplayed the anti-government slogans chanted by some of the protesters, saying they were not representative of the majority view in China.