Protests erupt across China in unprecedented challenge to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy

Nov 27, 2022, 2:53 PM

(CNN) — Protests erupted across China throughout the weekend, including at universities and in Shanghai where hundreds chanted “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” in an unprecedented show of defiance against the country’s stringent and increasingly costly zero-Covid policy.

deadly fire at an apartment block in Urumqi, the capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, which killed 10 people and injured nine on Thursday has acted as a catalyst for searing public anger, as videos emerged that seemed to suggest lockdown measures delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.

In China’s biggest cities, from the financial hub of Shanghai to the capital Beijing, residents gathered to grieve the dead from the Xinjiang fire, speak out against zero-Covid and call for freedom and democracy. On dozens of university campuses, students demonstrated or put up protest posters. In many parts of the country, residents in locked-down neighborhoods tore down barriers and took to the streets, following mass anti-lockdown protests that swept Urumqi on Friday night.

Such widespread scenes of anger and defiance — some of which stretched into the early hours of Monday morning — are exceptionally rare in China, where the ruling Communist Party ruthlessly cracks down on all expressions of dissent. But three years into the pandemic, many people have been pushed to the brink by the government’s incessant use of lockdowns, Covid tests and quarantines — as well as ever-tightening censorship and continued onslaught on personal freedoms.

The ratcheting-up of restrictions in recent months, coupled with a series of heartbreaking deaths blamed on an over-zealous policing of the controls, has brought matters to a head.


Protests in Shanghai


The anger led to remarkable acts of defiance in Shanghai, where many of its 25 million residents hold deep resentment toward the government’s zero-Covid policy after being subjected to a two-month lockdown in the spring.

Late on Saturday night, hundreds of residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on Urumqi Road, which was named after the city, to mourn the victims of the Xinjiang fire, according to videos widely circulated — and promptly censored — on Chinese social media and a witness account.

Surrounding a makeshift memorial of candles, flowers and placards, the crowd held up blank sheets of white paper — in what is traditionally a symbolic protest against censorship — and chanted, “Need human rights, need freedom.”

In multiple videos seen by CNN, people could be heard shouting demands for China’s leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to “step down.” The crowd also chanted, “Don’t want Covid test, want freedom!” and “Don’t want dictatorship, want democracy!”

Some videos show people singing China’s national anthem and The Internationale, a standard of the socialist movement, while holding banners protesting the country’s exceptionally stringent pandemic measures.

Rows of police officers, who initially looked on from the outside, started to move in to push back and divide the crowd around 3 a.m., sparking tense face-offs with the protesters, according to a witness.

The witness told CNN they saw several people arrested and taken into a police vehicle next to the makeshift memorial after 4.30 a.m. They also saw several protesters being grabbed by the officers from the crowd and taken behind the police line. The protest gradually dispersed before dawn, the witness said.

On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Shanghai residents returned to the site to continue protesting despite a heavy police presence and road blocks.

Videos showed hundreds of people at an intersection shouting “Release the people!” in a demand for the police to free detained demonstrators.

This time around, police adopted a more hardline approach, moving faster and more aggressively to make arrests and disperse the crowds.

In one video, a man holding a bundle of chrysanthemum gave a speech while walking on a pedestrian crossing, as a police officer tried to stop him.

“We need to be braver! Am I breaking the law by holding flowers?” he asked the crowd, who shouted “No!” in reply.

“We Chinese need to be braver!” he said to the applause of the crowd. “So many of us were arrested yesterday. Are they without job or without family? We should not be afraid!”

The man put up a struggle as more than a dozen officers forced him into a police car, as the angry crowd shouted “Release him!” and rushed toward the vehicle.

Other videos show chaotic scenes of police pushing, dragging and beating protesters.

In the evening, after one protester was violently dragged away, hundreds of people shouted “triads” at the police, in reference to local crime gangs, according to a livestream.


Demonstration spreads


By Sunday evening, mass demonstrations had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, where thousands of residents called for not only an end to Covid restrictions, but more remarkably, political freedoms.

In Beijing, hundreds of mostly young people demonstrated in the commercial heart of the city well into the small hours of Monday. A small crowd first gathered along the Liangma River for a vigil for the victims of the Xinjiang fire, before it grew in size and eventually marched down the city’s Third Ring Road.

People chanted slogans against zero-Covid, voiced support for the detained protesters in Shanghai, and called for greater civil liberties. “We want freedom! We want freedom!” the crowd chanted under an overpass.

Speaking to CNN’s Selina Wang at the protest, a demonstrator said he was shocked by the turnout.

“Every conscientious Chinese should be here. They don’t have to voice their opinions, but I hope they can stand with us,” he said.

In the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu, large crowds demonstrated along the bustling river banks in a popular food and shopping district, according to a protester interviewed by CNN and videos circulating online.

The gathering started with a minute of silence to mourn the Xinjiang fire victims, later turning political as the crowd grew in size, numbering into the hundreds.

“Opposition to dictatorship!” the crowd chanted. “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors!” they shouted in a thinly veiled reference to Xi, who last month began a norm-shattering third term in office.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, hundreds gathered on a public square in Haizhu district — the epicenter of the city’s ongoing Covid outbreak that has been locked down for weeks.

“We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom! Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of arts, freedom of movement, personal freedoms. Give me back my freedom!” The crowd shouted.


University campuses


Across China, protests have also broken out on university campuses — which are particularly politically sensitive to the Communist Party, given the history of the student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, about 100 students gathered around a protest slogan painted on a wall at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing. A student told CNN that when he arrived at the scene at around 1 a.m., security guards were using jackets to cover the protest sign.

“Say no to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to Covid test, yes to food,” read the message written in red paint, echoing the slogan of a protest that took place on a Beijing overpass in October, just days before a key Communist Party meeting at which Xi secured a third term in power.

“Open your eyes and look at the world, dynamic zero-Covid is a lie,” the protest slogan at Peking University read.

The student said security guards later covered the slogan with black paint.

Students later gathered to sing the The Internationale before being dispersed by teachers and security guards.

In the eastern province of Jiangsu, at least dozens of students from Communication University of China, Nanjing gathered on Saturday evening to mourn those who died in the Xinjiang fire. Videos show the students holding up sheets of white paper and mobile phone flashlights.

In one video, a university official could be heard warning the students: “You will pay for what you did today.”

“You too, and so will the country,” a student shouted in reply.

The campus protests continued on Sunday. At Tsinghua University, another elite university in Beijing, hundreds of students gathered on a square to protest against zero-Covid and censorship.

Videos and images circulating on social media show students holding up sheets of white paper and shouting: “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories


Ashley Moser

Flu, COVID and RSV all trending down for the first time in months, says CDC

Major respiratory illnesses are all trending down for the first time since September, according to the CDC.
13 days ago
FILE PHOTO (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)...
Josh Ellis

Utah doctor, others charged with running COVID vaccine scheme, issuing fake records and giving fake shots

A Utah plastic surgeon, his medical corporation and three others have been charged after prosecutors say they issued fake COVID-19 vaccination record cards and injected minors with saline shots.
19 days ago
Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department, left, discusses schoolch...
Michael Houck

Salt Lake County ends its COVID-19 emergency status

After nearly three years, the Salt Lake County Health Department ended its COVID emergency status Tuesday. 
27 days ago
FILE: People line up in their cars as members of the Utah National Guard give COVID-19 swab tests a...
Eliza Pace

Gov. Cox, along with 24 other governors, call on President Biden to end Federal Public Health Emergency

Gov. Spencer Cox signed a letter with 24 other governors calling on President Joe Biden to end the federal public health emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.
2 months ago
U.S. President Joe Biden welcomes guests to the East Room of the White House on December 14, 2022 i...
ZEKE MILLER, AP White House Correspondent

White House reveals winter COVID-19 plans, more free tests

The Biden administration is again making some free COVID-19 tests available to all U.S. households as it unveils its contingency plans for potential coronavirus surges this winter.
2 months ago
FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference, Feb. 1, 2022, in Miami. Gov. DeSa...
FREIDA FRISARO, Associated Press

DeSantis seeks grand jury investigation of COVID-19 vaccines

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking the state’s Supreme Court to convene a grand jury to investigate “any and all wrongdoing” with respect to the COVID-19 vaccines.
2 months ago

Sponsored Articles

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...
Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.
Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Protests erupt across China in unprecedented challenge to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy