By Rita Cheng, Xiaoshan Huang and Raymond Cheng
Angered by China’s strict anti-virus lockdowns, protesters took to the streets in more than a dozen cities on Sunday, calling for 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.
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, according to social media video and a local resident.
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 someone was arrested just for holding up a blank sheet of paper.
The same user later posted a photo of police removing a street sign bearing the words Urumqi Road, Middle Section.
A Shanghai resident who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals said many in Shanghai were out on the streets out of solidarity for those who died in an apartment fire in the Xinjiang regional capital Urumqi, which many have blamed on strict lockdown measures under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy.
“Yes, it’s because of what happened in Urumqi,” the woman said. “They are gathered at a street called Urumqi Road. They are actually behaving in a very civilized manner, just holding up blank sheets of paper.”
Blank sheets of paper have also been held up by protesters in Hong Kong and Russia, and are widely regarded as a mute and ironic protest against authoritarian rule and lack of freedom of speech.
She said part of the reason for the popular anger at COVID-19 measures overspilling now was a lack of reliable news and information about what is happening in China.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about what’s happening [here in China], let alone overseas,” the woman said. “If it weren’t for that fire in Xinjiang, we would never have known they had been under lockdown for more than three months.”
“We have no way to express what we are thinking, and even if we do, nobody pays us any attention. They ignore us, and we’re lucky not to get targeted,” she said.
The Nov. 24 fire in Urumqi’s Jixiangyuan residential complex 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 include extended lockdowns of entire cities and forced home isolation or quarantine for anyone suspected of catching the illness, together with constant testing and mass tracking of the population via the Health Code smartphone app.
It came after residents of the city had already protested a grueling lockdown that has lasted more than three months, and prompted the municipal government to announce the easing of the lockdown in three stages on Nov. 26.
Video clips showing screams and shouts to “open the door!” coming from within a burning apartment block went viral on Chinese social media, with many commenting that the fire and rescue trucks were unable to get to the blaze in time to save people due to roadblocks, leaving it to burn for three hours straight.
Photos and statements shared online, together with the location of the apartment building, suggested that the victims were likely all Uyghurs rather than Han Chinese, according to RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Urumqi mayor Memtimin Qadir denied at a news conference that the fire victims had been locked inside the building, and blamed poorly parked private cars for blocking access by rescue services trying to put out the blaze, Communist Party-backed online news site The Paper reported.
Qadir’s comments prompted further public anger, and a mass protest outside the municipal government on Nov. 25 calling for an end to the lockdown.
Meanwhile, dozens of people were arrested at protests in Shanghai on Nov. 26, judging from video clips uploaded to social media, but their whereabouts were unknown, and the Shanghai authorities had yet to make any public response to the protests.
Repeated calls to the Shanghai police department (known in China as the Public Security Bureau) and state security police rang unanswered on Sunday.
Reports emerged via social media from Urumqi that police had started detaining anyone who posted or forwarded any content relating to the apartment building fire.
Calls to the Urumqi police security bureau led to a voice-activated menu on Sunday that appeared not to have any working options.
A resident of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, who gave only the surname Li, said there had been a number of protests in residential communities there too.
“Regarding yesterday’s news, we’ve had various incidents in colleges and residential communities, to differing degrees,” he said. “[Chinese] people don’t protest or resist until it gets to the last straw.”
Li said he doesn’t believe the protests were coordinated or even organized.
“Who in China has the capacity to organize a movement of that kind?” he said.
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.
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.
“We want democracy and the rule of law!” they chanted 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!”
An employee who answered the phone at Tsinghua University declined to comment on the demonstation.
“It’s pretty quiet here,” the employee said. “It’s the weekend, and we don’t really know the specifics of the situation here at the main office.”
In another clip posted by Feng, a woman addresses a huge crowd on the university campus.
“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 on Nov. 26 by the Urumqi fire.
“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 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Hong Kong Baptist University.
Dozens 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.
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.
In Beijing, a crowd of at least 100 chanted in a video clip posted to Twitter: “We want freedom, equality, democracy, rule of law!!”, “No dictatorship!” and, “No personality cult!”
“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 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.
A senior Chinese journalist declined to comment on the Shanghai protests when contacted by RFA on Sunday.
“I can’t comment,” he said. “This is too sensitive. I hope you can understand.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.