A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.
For the first time in decades, thousands of people have challenged the Chinese authorities protest in universities and in the streets of big cities, demanding to be freed not only from relentless Covid testing and lockdownsbut strict censorship and the Communist Party’s ever-tightening grip on all aspects of life.
Across the country, “want freedom” has become a rallying cry for a wave of protests mainly run by the younger generation, some too young to have taken part in previous acts of open dissent against the government.
“Give me freedom or give me death!” crowds in the hundreds shouted in several cities, according to videos circulating online, as vigils to mark the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire in Xinjiang degenerated into political rallies.
Videos circulating online appear to suggest China’s strict zero Covid policy initially barred rescuers from accessing the scene, angering residents across the country who endured three years of varying Covid checks.
Some protesters chanted for freedom of speech, democracy, rule of law, human rights and other political demands in cities, from the eastern financial hub of Shanghai to the capital Beijing, the southern metropolis of Guangzhou and Chengdu in the west.
CNN has verified protests in 16 locations, with reports of other protests in dozens of other cities and universities across the country.
Protesters take to the streets of Hong Kong in solidarity with the mainland
While protests in several parts of China appear to have largely dispersed peacefully over the weekend, some have encountered a stronger response from authorities – and security has been reinforced in the cities of a country where the authorities have extensive surveillance and security capabilities.
In Beijing, a heavy police presence was apparent on Monday evening, a day after protests erupted there. Police vehicles, many parked with their headlights flashing, lined eerily quiet streets in parts of the capital, including near Liangmaqiao in the central Chaoyang district, where a large crowd of protesters had gathered on Sunday evening.
When asked on Monday whether the “widespread display of anger and frustration” seen across the country could prompt China to move away from its zero-Covid approach, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson rejected dissent suggestions.
“What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened,” said spokesman Zhao Lijian, who added that authorities had “made adjustments” to their Covid policies based on “realities on the ground.” ground”.
“We believe that with the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful,” he said.
In a symbolic protest against increasingly strict censorship, young protesters across China held up sheets of white paper – a metaphor for the countless critical posts, news articles and outspoken social media accounts that have been erased from ‘Internet.
“I think in a just society no one should be criminalized for their speech. There shouldn’t be just one voice in our society – we need a variety of voices,” a Beijing protester told CNN in the early hours of Monday as he marched on the Third Ring Road. city with a thin stack of white A4 paper.
“I hope that in the future, I will no longer be holding a blank piece of paper for what I really want to express,” said the protester, whom CNN is not naming due to concerns about the repercussions of his taking. word.
The United Nations on Monday urged the Chinese authorities to guarantee the “right of the people to demonstrate peacefully”, the secretary-general’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said during a daily press briefing.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said China’s ruling Communist Party should “take notice” of the protests.
“Protests against the Chinese government are rare. And so when they happen, I think it’s worth taking note of, but more importantly, I think it’s incumbent on the Chinese government to look out for its own people,” Cleverly told reporters.
Throughout the weekend, censors quickly deleted videos and photos of the protests from the Chinese internet, although the startling footage made headlines around the world.
In online comments, Chinese state media made no mention of the protests, instead focusing on highlights of Beijing’s anti-Covid policies, stressing that they were both “scientific and effective”.
But for many protesters, the protests are about much more than Covid – they are bringing together many liberal-minded young people whose attempts to speak out might otherwise be thwarted by strict online censorship.
A Shanghai resident in his 20s who attended the candlelight vigil in the early hours of Sunday said he was greeted by other young people holding white papers, flowers and shouting ‘want freedom’ as they walked by to the makeshift memorial.
“My friends and I all lived through the Shanghai lockdown, and the so-called ‘iron fist’ (of the state) fell on all of us,” they told CNN, “That night, I felt like I could finally do something I couldn’t sit still, I had to go.
They silently burst into tears in the crowd as the chants for freedom grew louder.
“At that moment, I felt that I was not alone,” they said. “I realized I wasn’t the only one thinking that way.”
In some cases, the protests took on an even more defiant tone and openly called for political change.
On the first night of protests in Shanghai, a crowd shouted “Get down, Xi Jinping! Quit, Communist Party! in a direct and unprecedented challenge to the highest leader. On Sunday evening, some protesters again chanted for Xi’s withdrawal.
In Chengdu, protesters did not name Xi, but their message was hard to miss. “Opposition to the dictatorship!” chanted hundreds of people packing the bustling riverbanks in a popular dining and shopping district on Sunday evening, according to videos and an attendee.
“We don’t want leaders for life. We don’t want emperors! they shouted in a thinly veiled reference to the Chinese leader, who last month began a norm-shattering third term.
According to the attendee, the crowd also protested revisions to the party charter and state constitution – which allowed Xi to further consolidate his grip on power and remove presidential term limits.
Just like in Shanghai, the rally began with a small candlelight vigil for those killed in the Urumqi fire on Thursday.
But as more people gathered, the vigil turned into a louder arena for airing political grievances.
“Everyone started shouting these slogans very naturally,” the participant said. “It is so rare that we have such a large gathering and protest. The words of mourning didn’t seem enough to us and we had to shout a few words we wanted to say.
For her, the experience of stifling censorship inevitably fuels the desire for “institutional and spiritual freedom”, and mourning the victims and demanding democracy and freedom are two “inseparable” things.
“We all know that the reason we have to continue to undergo Covid lockdowns and testing is that this is a political move, not a scientific, logical epidemic prevention response,” he said. she declared. “That’s why we have more political demands other than lifting the lockdowns.”
The Chengdu protester said she felt encouraged by the wave of protests sweeping the country.
“It turns out there are so many people who are wide awake,” she said. “I feel like I see a glimmer of light coming in front of me.”