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China Covid: Protesters openly urge Xi to resign over China Covid curbs


Huat Zai
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Protests in China against government's strict Covid measures have intensified, with some people publicly venting their anger at the Communist Party leaders.

Thousands of protesters have turned out in Shanghai, where the BBC has seen people bundled into police cars.

Students have also demonstrated at universities in Beijing and Nanjing.

The latest unrest follows a protest in the remote north-west city of Urumqi, where lockdown rules were blamed after 10 people died in a tower block fire.

While Chinese authorities deny that Covid restrictions caused the deaths, officials in Urumqi did issue an unusual apology late on Friday, and pledged to "restore order" by phasing out restrictions.

'Xi Jinping, step down'

During Saturday night's protest in Shanghai - China's biggest city and a global financial hub in the east of the country - people were heard openly shouting slogans such as "Xi Jinping, step down" and "Communist party, step down".

 

Some held blank white banners, while other lit candles and laid flowers for the victims in Urumqi.

Such demands are an unusual sight within China, where any direct criticism of the government and the president can result in harsh penalties.

But analysts say the government appears to have drastically underestimated growing discontent towards the zero-Covid approach, a policy inextricably linked to Xi Jinping who recently pledged there would be no swerving from it.

One protester in Shanghai told the BBC that he felt "shocked and a bit excited" to see people out on the streets, calling it the first time he'd seen such large-scale dissent in China.

He said lockdowns made him feel "sad, angry and hopeless", and had left him unable to see his unwell mother, who was undergoing cancer treatment.

A female demonstrator told the BBC police officers were asked how they felt about the protests, and the answer was "the same as you". But, she said, "they wear their uniforms so they're doing their job."

 

Others gave accounts of violence, with one protester telling the Associated Press news agency one of his friends had been beaten by police at the scene, while two others had been pepper sprayed.

People gathered again Sunday, laying flowers for the Urumqi fire victims in the area of Shanghai's Urumqi Road.

However, these tributes were gathered up by police, who also attended the protest site en masse.

Police officers confront a man amid crowded scenes at a road junction in ShanghaiImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Police confronted protesters who gathered for a second day in Shanghai on Sunday
Wearing fluorescent jackets and face masks, a row of police officers stand watch behind a cordonImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There has been a large security presence around Urumqi Road, where people attempted to lay floral tributes for fire victims in Urumqi

The BBC saw police officers, private security guards and plain-clothed police officers on the streets, confronting protesters who assembled for a second day.

Demonstrators who led anti-government chants were taken away, and punched or pushed up against a police car in some cases.

Photos and videos have also emerged online that showed students launching their own protests at universities in Beijing and Nanjing on Saturday.

 

Hundreds of people took part in one such demonstration in Tsinghua University in the capital, one student told the AFP news agency.

The group held up blank sheets of paper - an act which has become a symbol of defiance against Chinese censorship - and were filmed chanting songs in support of freedom and democracy.

Videos of the protests are difficult to independently verify, but many of them show an unusually explicit and outspoken criticism of the government and its leader.

On Sunday, hundreds of residents took to the streets of the central city of Wuhan - where the Covid pandemic began, according to other videos posted on social media. Some of the protesters are pictured knocking down barricades.

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Protest unusual in criticising President Xi

Tessa Wong, BBC News

The Urumqi fire was a nightmare scenario for many Chinese who have come under widespread restrictions in recent months - locked in one's apartment with no way to escape, according to some accounts. Authorities have disputed this, but it has not stopped public outrage and anxiety from spreading.

It has become the latest tipping point in mounting frustration. Millions are weary of three years of movement restrictions and daily Covid tests. The anger has spread to all corners of China, from major cities to far flung regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, and galvanised every part of society including young university students, factory workers, and ordinary citizens.

As this anger grows, protests against Covid measures have become an increasingly common sight. But even this weekend's demonstrations are unusual in this new normal, both in their numbers and directness of their criticism of the government and President Xi Jinping.

Taking to the streets en masse with hundreds calling for President Xi to step down was thought to be unthinkable not so long ago. But after a recent dramatic protest on a Beijing bridge that stunned many, a bar appears to have been set for the expression of more open and sharper dissent.

Others have also chosen to wave the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem - its lyrics espousing revolutionary ideals and urging the people to "rise up, rise up". It's a show of patriotism that could also be read as a pointed expression of solidarity with fellow Chinese suffering under Mr Xi's zero-Covid policy - and a call to action.

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The protests are the latest in an accelerating series of demonstrations against China's zero-Covid measures which have also become increasingly bolder in criticism of the government and President Xi.

The zero-Covid strategy is the last policy of its kind among the world's major economies, and is partly due to China's relatively low vaccination levels and an effort to protect elderly people.

Snap lockdowns have caused anger across the country - and Covid restrictions more broadly have trigged recent violent protests from Zhengzhou to Guangzhou.

 

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