“There were people everywhere,” said Chen, a 29-year-old Shanghai resident who came to the vigil around 2 a.m. Sunday. “At first people were shouting to lift the lockdown in Xinjiang, then it changed to ‘Xi Jinping, step down, step down from the Communist Party’!” he said, giving only his last name for security reasons.
It was the immediate trigger for demonstrations that also saw demonstrations at universities in Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing on Saturday. Terrible fire in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang in northwest China on Thursday. Ten people, including three children, died after emergency fire services could not get close enough to the engulfed apartment building. Residents accused the lockdown measures of hampering rescue efforts.
Officials on Friday denied that Covid restrictions were a factor, saying some residents’ “ability to protect themselves is very weak,” sparking mockery and anger on Chinese social media platforms. Residents of Urumqi, one of China’s most tightly controlled cities, protested on Friday as a result of a wider security crackdown. Many waved the Chinese national flag and called for the complete lifting of the lockdowns.
That riot spread. On Saturday, Shanghai residents took to Urumqi’s namesake Wulumuqi Middle Road in a candlelit procession that turned into a demonstration. Photos sent to The Washington Post by a photographer at the scene showed protesters holding blank sheets of paper — a symbolic protest against the country’s widespread censorship — and placing flowers and candles on victims as police looked on.
One held pieces of paper with the number ’10’ written in Uighur and Chinese, referring to the 10 victims of Urumqi. The crowd started passing the blank pages.
“Everybody had it,” said Meng, the photographer, who gave only his last name for security reasons. “Nobody said anything, but we all knew what it was. Delete all you want. You can’t censor what’s not said,” he said.
Such demonstrations are rare in China, where authorities move quickly to stamp out all forms of dissent. Authorities are particularly wary of protests at universities, the site of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that spread across the country and culminated in a bloody crackdown and massacre around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
At the Communication University of China in Nanjing, posters mocking “Zero Covid” were removed on Saturday, prompting a student to stand for hours holding a blank sheet of paper. Hundreds of students participated in unison.
Some laid flowers on the ground to pay their respects to the victims of the fire and chanted “Be Peaceful”. Others sang the Chinese national anthem and the left-wing anthem “The Internationale”. “Long live the people!” They shouted.
“I felt lonely, but yesterday everyone stood together,” said a 21-year-old photography student, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “I feel that we are all brave, brave enough to pursue the rights that are owed to us, brave enough to criticize these wrongs, brave enough to take our stand.”
“Students are like a spring, pressed every day. Yesterday, that spring rises again,” he said.
Videos posted on social media on Sunday showed a crowd of students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University holding blank pieces of paper and chanting, “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression!” Through the loudspeaker, a young woman shouted, “I believe our people will be disappointed with us if we don’t speak out, fearing that we will be arrested. As a Tsinghua student, I will regret this for the rest of my life.
According to social media posts, a large number of people gathered at Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, holding their phones, as part of a vigil for those who died in Urumqi. Other records show faint protest chants at campuses in four cities and two provinces. In Chengdu, a city in the southwest, videos showed people crowding the streets late Sunday. “We don’t want rulers for life,” they shouted. “China does not need an emperor.”
Not just at universities, but across the country, citizens seem to be reaching a breaking point. In the name of “Zero Covid”, they have endured nearly three years of unrelenting restrictions that have sealed many in their homes, sent them to quarantine centers or banned them from traveling. Residents should undergo repeated coronavirus tests and monitor their mobility and health status.
Urumqi fire continued to a Bus accident In September, 27 people who were taken to the quarantine center were killed. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai left residents stranded Not having enough food sparked online and offline protests. Deaths related to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old child who died after his parents were unable to take him to hospital, further fueled public anger.
Health officials say cutting off the spread of Covid quickly and isolating all positive cases is the only way to prevent a spike in severe cases and deaths, which could overwhelm the health care system. As a result of its low infection rate, China’s population of 1.4 billion has little natural immunity. Vaccinated people received locally produced vaccines that were less effective against the highly infectious omicron variant.
The Xinjiang fire comes after weeks of particularly high frustration over pandemic policies, which have been loosened and tightened again in some places amid a fresh surge of cases. On Sunday, China reported 39,791 new infections, the fourth straight day of recorded cases.
An article in the state-run People’s Daily on Sunday called for “unwavering commitment” to current Covid policies. At a briefing on Sunday, Urumqi officials said public transport would partially resume on Monday as part of efforts to gradually lift lockdown measures.
In Shanghai, the police eventually mobilized the site of the vigil and closed access to the road. They clashed with protesters, pushing them into cars before dispersing the crowd around 5 a.m. At one point, the crowd tried to stop police from dragging away a man who had recited a poem in tribute to the victims.
Videos released on Sunday show crowds of people shouting in the area.Let them go!” an apparent reference to those arrested. Chen said he saw a dozen people being arrested.
“I’m not a leader person, but if there’s an opportunity to speak or help with something, I’d love to,” he said.
Bei-Lin Wu and Vic Xiang in Taipei and Lirik Li in Seoul contributed to this report.
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