Hundreds of demonstrators in Shanghai shouted and jostled with police on Sunday evening as protests over China’s stringent COVID restrictions flared for a third day following a deadly apartment fire in the country’s far west.
The wave of civil disobedience, which has spread to other cities including Beijing, is unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago and comes amid mounting frustration over his signature zero-COVID policy.
The Chinese have spent nearly three years living with some of the strictest COVID curbs in the world.
The fire at a residential high-rise building in the city of Urumqi triggered protests after videos of the incident posted on social media led to accusations that lockdowns were a factor in the death toll.
Urumqi officials hastily held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to reject claims that COVID measures had hampered escape and rescue operations. Many of Urumqi’s four million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days at a time.
On Sunday in Shanghai, police kept a heavy presence on Wulumuqi Road where a candlelight vigil the day before turned into protests.
By evening hundreds of people gathered in the area.
Some jostled with police trying to disperse them. People held up blank sheets of paper as an expression of protest.
One Reuters witness saw at least seven people taken away by police.
“We just want our basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far,” said a 26-year-old protester who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.
“The people here aren’t violent, but the police are arresting them for no reason. They tried to grab me but the people all around me grabbed my arms so hard and pulled me back so I could escape.”
Another protestor, Shaun Xiao, said: “I’m here because I love my country, but I don’t love my government…I want to be able to go out freely, but I can’t. Our COVID-19 policy is a game and is not based on science or reality.”
On Saturday, the vigil in Shanghai for victims of the apartment fire turned into a protest against COVID curbs, with the crowd chanting calls for lockdowns to be lifted. One large group chanted
“Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping”, according to witnesses and videos posted on social media, in a rare public protest against the country’s leadership.