Hundreds of protesters and police clashed in Shanghai as protests against China’s tough Covid restrictions erupted for a third day and spread to several cities, in the biggest test for President Xi Jinping since he ‘he won a historic third term in office.
Wave of civil disobedience is unprecedented in mainland China over the past decade as frustration mounts over Xi’s signature zero covid policy almost three years after the start of the pandemic.
The protests sparked by a Deadly apartment fire in the far west of the country last week took place on Sunday in cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou.
On Monday China reports a new daily record for new Covid-19 infections, with 40,347 cases. The cities of Guangzhou and Chongqing, with thousands of cases, are struggling to contain outbreaks. Hundreds of infections have also been recorded in several other cities across the country.
Chinese stocks fell sharply as investors worried about the impact of the protests on the world’s second-largest economy.
In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totaling at least 1,000 people gathered along the Chinese capital’s 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.
In Shanghai on Sunday, police maintained a heavy presence on Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi, and where a candlelight vigil the day before turned into protests.
“We just want our basic human rights. We cannot leave our homes without passing a test. It was the Xinjiang accident that pushed people too far,” said a 26-year-old protester in Shanghai who declined to be identified.
“People here are not violent, but the police arrest them for no reason. They tried to grab me but people all around me grabbed my arms so hard and pulled me back so I could escape.
On Sunday evening, hundreds of people gathered in the area. Some jostled with the police trying to disperse them. People held up blank sheets of paper in protest.
Saturday, the people of Shanghai had chanted “No PCR tests, we want freedom!” followed by series of repeated calls for “Freedom! Freedom!”
Protests erupted in Urumqi on Fridaythe regional capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, after footage of a fire at a residential building that killed at least 10 people the day before led to accusations that a Covid lockdown was a factor in the number of deaths.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny that Covid measures had hampered the escape and rescue. Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been subjected to some of the country’s longest lockdowns, banned from leaving their homes for 100 days.
Late on Sunday, a BBC reporter was seen on camera being ‘beaten and kicked by police’ before being arrested in Shanghai. Footage on social media showed Edward Lawrence being dragged to the ground in handcuffs, while he was seen saying in another video: ‘Call the consulate now’.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC is extremely concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed while covering protests in Shanghai.
“He was held for several hours before being released,” the spokesperson said, adding that he was covering the protests as an accredited reporter.
Lawrence, a senior reporter and camera operator for the BBC’s China bureau, tweeted from the scene of the protest in Shanghai on Sunday morning UK time.
He wrote: ‘I am at the scene of last night’s extraordinary anti Covid-zero protest in Shanghai. Many people are gathered here to watch quietly. Lots of cops.
In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began three years ago, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents taking to the streets, smashing metal barricades, overturning Covid test tents and demanding the end of closures.
Other towns that have seen public dissent include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents toppled Covid staff tents and destroyed testing cabins on Saturday, social media posts show.
Widespread public protests are rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens to vent their frustration mostly on social media, where they play cat and mouse with censors.
China has stuck to Xi’s zero Covid policy even as much of the world lifted most restrictions. Although low by global standards, the number of cases in China has been at record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday, causing even more lockdowns in cities across the country. Beijing has defended the policy as life-saving and necessary to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.
Frustration mounts just over a month after Xi won a third term as head of the Communist Party of China, and much of the anger is directed at the Chinese leader.
In a video on social media, a protester accused Xi of locking people up and confining them to their homes.
“Xi Jinping quits, the Communist Party quits,” he said in the widely shared message.
“It will put serious pressure on the party to respond. Chances are a response will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters,” said Dan Mattingly, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University.
Still, he said, the unrest is a far cry from that seen in 1989, when protests culminated in the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
He added that as long as Xi had the Chinese elite and military on his side, he would face no significant risk to his grip on power.
Reuters contributed to this report