“There were people everywhere,” said Chen, a 29-year-old resident of Shanghai who arrived at the vigil around 2 a.m. on Sunday. “At first people were shouting to lift the lockdown in Xinjiang, and then it became ‘Xi Jinping, step down, step down, the Communist Party!'” he said. “
The immediate impetus for the demonstrations, which were also seen at Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing universities on Saturday, was deadly fire in Urumqi, The capital of Xinjiang in far northwest China on Thursday. Ten people, including three children, died after emergency fire services were unable to get close enough to an apartment building on fire. Residents blamed the lockdown measures for hampering rescue efforts.
Officials on Friday denied that restrictions on the spread of the coronavirus were a factor and said that “the ability of some residents to save themselves was very poor,” prompting more derision and anger to engulf Chinese social media platforms. Residents of Urumqi, one of the most tightly controlled cities in China as a result of a wider security crackdown, came out to protest on Friday. Many waved China’s national flag and called for the lockdown to be lifted completely.
The unrest spread. On Saturday, Shanghainese gathered for a candlelight vigil on Middle Wolumukhi Road, named after Urumqi, which turned into a demonstration. Pictures sent to the Washington Post by a photographer at the scene showed protesters holding white papers – symbolic opposition to the censorship rampant in the country – and laying flowers and candles on the victims as police watched.
One person held pieces of paper with the number “10” written in Uyghur and Chinese, referring to the ten victims in Urumqi. The crowd started scrolling through the blank pages.
“Everyone was keeping it,” said Meng, the photographer, who gave only his last name due to safety concerns. “Nobody said anything, but we all know what they meant. Delete whatever you want. You can’t censor what isn’t said.”
Such demonstrations are extremely rare in China, where the authorities move quickly to stamp out all forms of dissent. The authorities are particularly wary of protests at universities, the site of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that spread across the country and ended in a bloody crackdown and massacre around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
At the University of China in Nanjing, posters mocking “No Covid” were removed on Saturday, prompting one student to stand for hours with a blank piece of paper in protest. Hundreds of students in solidarity.
Some laid flowers on the ground in honor of the victims of the fire and chanted, “Rest in peace.” Others sang the Chinese national anthem as well as the left-wing anthem “The Internationale”. They shouted, “Long live the people!”
“I was feeling lonely, but yesterday everyone stood together,” said the 21-year-old photography student, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. “I feel we are all brave, brave enough to pursue the rights we owe, brave enough to criticize these wrongs, and brave enough to speak our mind.”
“Students are like a spring, they are being squeezed every day. Yesterday, that spring bounced back again.
Videos posted on social media Sunday show a crowd of students at Tsinghua University in Beijing holding blank pieces of paper and chanting, “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression!” A young woman shouted through a megaphone: “If we don’t talk because we are afraid of arrest, I believe our people will be disappointed in us. As a Tsinghua student, I will regret this for the rest of my life.”
Crowds also gathered at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, holding up their phones as part of a vigil for those who died in Urumqi, according to social media posts. Other posts show blurred protest slogans on university campuses in four cities and two provinces. In Chengdu, a city in the southwest, videos show people crowding the streets late Sunday. “We don’t want rulers for life,” they shouted. China does not need an emperor.
Across the country, and not just on campuses, citizens appear to be reaching a breaking point. Named “Zero Covid”, they have lived through nearly three years of strict controls that have left many of them locked in their homes, sent to quarantine centers or banned from travel. Residents must undergo frequent coronavirus checks and have their movement and health monitored.
The Urumqi fire was followed by A bus accident In September, 27 people were killed while being transported to a quarantine centre. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai left residents without enough food which led to protests online and off. And deaths linked to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old who died after his parents could not get him to hospital, added to public outrage.
Health authorities say this strategy of stopping transmission of the coronavirus 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 healthcare system. As a result of the low infection rate, China’s 1.4 billion people have a low level of natural immunity. Those who were vaccinated had received home-made vaccines that proved less effective against the more infectious Omicron variant.
The Xinjiang fire also comes after weeks of growing frustration in particular over the pandemic’s policies, which have been loosened and then tightened again in some places amid a new surge in cases. On Sunday, China recorded 39,791 new infections, which is the fourth day in a row that a record number of injuries has been recorded.
An article in the state-run People’s Daily on Sunday called for “steadfast adherence” to existing anti-coronavirus policies. In a briefing on Sunday, officials in Urumqi said public transportation will partially resume on Monday as part of efforts to gradually lift lockdown measures.
In Shanghai, police eventually overran the vigil site and closed off access to the road. They clashed with protesters, shoving them into cars before dispersing the crowd around 5 am.
Videos posted on Sunday show crowds in the area yelling, “let them go! in an apparent reference to those arrested. Chen said he saw dozens of people arrested.
“I’m not the type to be a leader,” he said, “but if there is an opportunity to speak up or do something to help, I want to.”
Bi Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.
“Lifelong food lover. Avid beeraholic. Zombie fanatic. Passionate travel practitioner.”