“There were people everywhere,” said Chen, a 29-year-old Shanghai resident who arrived at the vigil around 2 a.m. Sunday. “At first, people were shouting to lift the lockdown in Xinjiang, then it became ‘Xi Jinping, quit, the Communist Party quit!’,” he said, giving only his last name for reasons. of security.
The immediate trigger for the protests, which were also seen Saturday at universities in Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing, was a deadly fire in Urumqi, Thursday, the capital of Xinjiang, in the far northwest of China. Ten people, including three children, died after emergency fire services were unable to get close enough to a burning building. Residents have blamed lockdown-related measures for hampering rescue efforts.
On Friday, officials denied covid restrictions were a factor and said some residents’ “ability to save themselves was too weak,” fueling more ridicule and anger that swept across Chinese social media platforms. Residents of Urumqi, one of China’s most tightly controlled cities following a wider security crackdown, turned out to protest on Friday. Many waved the Chinese national flag and called for the lockdowns to be lifted completely.
This unrest has spread. On Saturday, Shanghai residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on Wulumuqi Middle Road, named after Urumqi, which turned into a protest. Photos sent to The Washington Post by a photographer at the scene showed protesters holding up blank sheets of paper – a symbolic opposition to the nation’s pervasive censorship – and laying flowers and candles for the victims as police looked on.
One person held up pieces of paper with the number “10” written in Uyghur and Chinese in reference to the 10 Urumqi victims. The crowd started circulating the blank pages.
“Everyone was holding it,” said Meng, the photographer, who gave only his last name for security reasons. “Nobody said anything, but we all knew what it meant. Delete anything you want. You cannot censor what is not said.
Such protests are extremely rare in China, where authorities react quickly to stamp out any form of dissent. Authorities are particularly wary of protests at universities, the site of pro-democracy protests in 1989 that spread across the country and ended in a bloody crackdown and massacre around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
At the Communication University of China in Nanjing, posters mocking “zero covid” were taken down on Saturday, prompting a student to stand for hours holding a blank sheet of paper in protest. Hundreds of students joined in solidarity.
Some laid flowers on the ground to honor the victims of the fires and chanted “rest in peace”. Others sang the Chinese national anthem as well as the left-wing anthem “The International”. They shouted, “Long live the people!
“Before 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 think we are all brave, brave enough to stand up for the rights we are entitled to, brave enough to criticize these mistakes, brave enough to voice our position.”
“Students are like a spring, pressed every day. Yesterday this spring rebounded,” he said.
Videos posted on social media on Sunday show a crowd of students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University holding up blank sheets of paper and chanting, “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech!” Through a loudspeaker, a young woman shouted: “If, because we are afraid of being arrested, we do not speak, I believe that our people will be disappointed with us. As a student of Tsinghua, I will regret this all my life.
Crowds also gathered at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, waving their phones as part of a vigil for those who died in Urumqi, according to social media posts. Other posts show blurry protest slogans on campuses in four cities and two provinces.
Across the country, and not just in universities, citizens seem to be reaching a breaking point. In the name of “zero covid”, they have lived through almost three years of incessant controls which have left many locked in their homes, sent to quarantine centers or banned from travel. Residents must submit to repeated coronavirus testing and monitoring of their movements and health.
The Urumqi fire followed a bus accident in September, which killed 27 people as they were taken to a quarantine centre. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai left residents without enough food and caused protests online and offline. Deaths linked to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old child who died after his parents were unable to take him to hospital, have further heightened public anger.
Health authorities say this strategy of cutting off covid transmission as soon as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent an increase in severe cases and deaths, which would overwhelm the health system. Due to its low infection rate, China’s population of 1.4 billion has a low level of natural immunity. Those who were immunized received locally made vaccines that were found to be less effective against the more infectious omicron variant.
The Xinjiang blaze also comes after weeks of particularly heightened frustration over pandemic policies, which were eased and then tightened in some places amid a new spike in cases. On Sunday, China reported 39,791 new infections, its fourth consecutive day of a record number of cases.
An article in the state-run People’s Daily on Sunday called for an “unwavering commitment” to current covid policies. At a Sunday briefing, Urumqi officials said public transport would partially resume on Monday as part of efforts to gradually lift lockdown measures.
In Shanghai, the police finally invaded the place of the vigil and closed the access to the road. They clashed with protesters, pushing them into cars before dispersing crowds around 5 a.m. At one point, the crowd tried to stop the police from dragging away a man reciting a poem in honor of the victims.
Videos released on Sunday show crowds in the area shouting: “let them goan apparent reference to those arrested. Chen said he saw a dozen people being arrested.
“I’m not the kind of person who’s a leader,” he said, “but if there’s a chance to speak up or do something to help, I want it.”
Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.