Shanghai rocked by protests as zero-Covid anger spreads

China has been rocked by some of its most significant acts of civil disobedience in years after vigils in Shanghai and other major cities to mark a deadly fire in the Xinjiang region turned into protests against the Xi Jinping’s draconian zero-Covid policies.

Social media posts have blamed the dead of 10 people in the fire Thursday in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, under Covid-19 restrictions, despite denials from authorities.

On Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai, named after the city in Xinjiang, hundreds of people attended a vigil late Saturday night. Video footage and photographs of the incident, verified by the FT, showed clashes between police and protesters in the early hours of Sunday.

Earlier, some protesters stood on police cars and others chanted “we don’t want PCR tests”. Some shouted at the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping to “resign”.

The expression was a direct echo of a rare protest when a poster was hung on a bridge in beijing last month, which included a list of slogans around the phrase “[we] don’t want”, including “we don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom”.

“I know what I’m doing is very dangerous, but it’s my duty,” said one student who rushed to attend the vigil after seeing it online. Another said the event started as a silent commemoration of those who died in the Urumqi fire, but then spiraled “out of control”.

On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people again gathered at the site of the vigil, some carrying white flowers, a symbol of mourning in Chinese culture. Police closed nearby roads, removed flowers from a lamppost and told people to go home.

China has sought to keep the virus at bay with strict measures lockdowns and quarantine measures for nearly three years, but politics is under immense pressure due to rising cases, popular discontent and a slowing economy. On Sunday, authorities reported the highest number of daily infections on record for the fourth consecutive day, with the tally now close to 40,000.

Elsewhere on Chinese social media, images of protests, initially of groups of people in Urumqi from Friday evening but later across the country, circulated widely but were also censored.

Videos showed students gathering at a vigil at Nanjing Communication University, while elsewhere footage of a similar vigil has also emerged at a university in Wuhan.

At Peking University in Beijing, images of graffiti on steps have been circulating repeating some of the slogans from the bridge in October, including “we don’t want PCR tests, we want food”.

A university student said the graffiti was partly removed early Sunday morning and a food truck was parked out front to hide it from view.

Images showing protesters holding up white sheets of paper, to symbolize censorship, have been widely circulated on social media.

A person who attended the vigil in Shanghai confirmed that pieces of white paper were also held there. They said a police officer told the crowd he understood how everyone was feeling, but suggested they “keep it in their hearts”.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens, China scholar and Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the widespread unrest could “become a serious test of the tools of social control developed under Xi.”

The authorities are grappling with Covid outbreaks in many major cities, including Guangzhou, Chongqing and Beijing. Previous outbreaks in China have been successfully suppressed, but they have generally occurred in single cities, such as Shanghai earlier this year.

In Beijing, where restrictions have been tightened in recent days but authorities still halted ahead of a full citywide lockdown, some residents have confronted officials over precinct-level closures to negotiate their release.

There were signs of people leaning on the protests to counter such restrictions elsewhere in China. A Shenzhen resident in his 30s told the FT that the sight of protests in Urumqi and Beijing had provided “inspiration” after peaceful negotiations with officials failed to lift the lockdown on their resort.

He said he and his neighbors gathered at the gates and shouted “free us” and the restrictions were later lifted.

“We copied and pasted what people in Beijing and Urumqi did and it worked,” he said.

Additional reporting by Cheng Leng in Hong Kong, Edward White in Seoul and Joe Leahy in Beijing

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