Protests are continuing in China against strict COVID lockdown restrictions after a deadly apartment fire brought some people closer to a breaking point.
Across the country, demonstrators took to the streets — a mass movement that is rare in China — and defied laws designed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Some appeared with sheets of blank white paper, in place of traditional protest signs, as a criticism of the censorship limiting citizens from speaking freely.
After the fire in Xinjiang that left at least 10 people dead, which critics say was due to the stay-at-home measures that resulted in the building’s doors being locked, protests intensified Sunday. In major cities like Shanghai, protestors gathered to demand the end of the country’s ruling party and the resignation of the president. In clips circulating social media, some demonstrators can be heard repeatedly chanting, "Communist Party step down, Xi Jinping step down."
Other protests more specifically focused on the country’s strict COVID policies. In Beijing, protesters gathered to call for an end to excessive testing, chanting, “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom.”
While much of the world has returned to a degree of normalcy even as the pandemic continues, China’s goal of reaching zero COVID infections via lockdowns, vigorous testing, and contact tracing has brought communities to a halt. The residents of the apartment building in Xinjiang had been under lockdown for more than 100 days before the fire broke out. A local official denied that COVID restrictions played a role in the fire’s death toll, saying instead that residents’ “ability to rescue themselves was too weak.”
According to the Associated Press, demonstrations have taken place across 50 university campuses, including President Xi Jinping’s alma mater, the prestigious Tsinghua University, where students shouted, “Freedom will prevail.”
At vigils held in Beijing, Guangdong, Shanghai, and Wuhan in remembrance of the victims of the fire in Xinjiang, citizens gathered to lay flowers, light candles, and sing together as police surrounded them.
The scenes emerging from around the country have been described as a historic moment in a nation where civil disobedience is rare.
Multiple journalists have reported witnessing arrests. According to the BBC, plainclothes officers and private security detained some demonstrators who led anti-government chants.
In a statement released Sunday urging the Chinese government to review its COVID restrictions, Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director Hana Young predicted that the penalty for speaking out would likely be severe.
“Unfortunately, China’s playbook is all too predictable,” Young said.
“Censorship and surveillance will continue, and we will most likely see police use of force and mass arrests of protesters in the coming hours and days. Long prison sentences against peaceful protesters are also to be expected.”