Chinese police have launched a show of force across the country in an effort to head off further protests against the government’s rigid zero-Covid policies.

Since Friday, a wave of protests has spread across multiple cities, prompted by the death of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi in Xinjiang. Much of the region had been under lockdown for more than three months, and people blamed the lockdown for the deaths.

Gatherings held to protest or to mourn the victims were held in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and other major Chinese cities on Saturday and Sunday, as well as dozens of university campuses, with some police clashes and detentions in Shanghai.

Restrictive lockdown measures continue in China, nearly three years into the pandemic

Protesters demanded an end to lockdowns, while some groups decried censorship and called for democracy and an end to the rule of Xi Jinping. Most protests were peaceful. There were some clashes with police in Shanghai, and protesters in Wuhan pushed over pandemic barriers.

On Monday evening, authorities appeared determined to ensure there was no repeat. At a central Beijing subway station, dozens of police cars lined the streets and patrolled surrounding blocks, while uniformed and plain-clothed officers stood guard at station exits and stopped passersby for questioning. Hours after the protest’s scheduled start, which had been organised via encrypted messaging apps, there were few apparent participants.

Protests spread across China on Sunday

In Shanghai, authorities barricaded a street where protesters had gathered for the past two nights. A heavy police presence lined the city’s Middle Urumqi Road according to people nearby and footage shared online. Edward Lawrence, a BBC journalist who was allegedly detained and beaten by police on Sunday, filmed bystanders having their photos forcibly deleted by police on Monday.

China: Video shows BBC journalist’s arrest during Covid protest – video

Some small actions were held, according to observers sharing videos and photos online. According to a Twitter account that has been sharing protest material in recent days, a small group of people holding up blank paper sheets in Kunming were later taken away by police.

At Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, where large protests were held on Sunday, school authorities on Monday announced a student symposium on the pandemic, and a free bus to help students get home early for the holidays. The announcement was greeted with some scepticism, given the term is not over yet.

“The school is afraid that passionate youths will make trouble, so the students are given an early holiday.” said one Weibo online commenter. “They are afraid of the student movement,” said another.

The extraordinary acts of civil disobedience – which observers have said are the most significant protests seen in China for decades – have demonstrated a growing frustration and scepticism with the ruling Communist party’s commitment to zero-Covid.

China: number of new coronavirus cases per day

A series of incidents related to the enforcement of the policy, including a bus crash that killed 27 people being taken to quarantine, and numerous suicides and other deaths linked to lockdowns and restrictions, have tested people’s tolerance. Last Thursday’s fire appears to have been a final straw for many.

The widespread protests included prolific use of blank sheets of paper to represent the dissent Chinese people are largely unable to safely express. In one shared video apparently showing a crowd at Beijing’s Liangma bridge, a man clad in white says “we’ll always support the Communist party, but we want democracy and freedom!” as he holds up a blank piece of paper.

Many protests have heard demands for democracy and rule of law, as well as press freedom and an end to online censorship. There have also been chants echoing the slogans displayed by the Beijing Sitong bridge protester on the eve of last month’s Communist party congress political meeting.

In video showing a crowd that had gathered on Wuyuan Road in Shanghai’s Xuhui district, people cheer and clap as a woman’s voice shouts out: “We want respect, not lies. We want reform, not a cultural revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves.”

China: number of coronavirus deaths per day

Asked about the Urumqi fire at a regular press conference on Monday, a spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs said “forces with ulterior motives” were linking the fire with zero-Covid measures.

Blaming foreign influence for local dissent is common from the Beijing authorities. At one protest on Sunday, protesters appeared to make reference to it.

“The foreign force you talked about – are they Marx and Engels?” shouted one. “Was it foreign force that set the fire in Xinjiang? Was it foreign force that toppled over the bus in Guizhou?” said another.

One man drew laughs when he noted the extraordinary restrictions already in place on residents. “Can’t go abroad, can’t go on overseas [news] networks, how do we communicate with foreign forces!”

Chen Daoyin, a political scientist formerly at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said since the protests were unorganised, uncoordinated and lacked a unified voiced, they posed no serious threat to the authorities and, within the party, might even serve to justify Xi’s hardline approach.

“It might even bolster Xi’s authority in the party,” Chen said. Since protesters have used the 11 November announcement of a partial easing of Covid measures as a justification for their calls for a relaxation and even bolder calls for freedom and the removal of Xi and the Communist party, this could allow Xi to prove to his opponents that he was right to insist on an iron-fisted “zero Covid” approach, he said.

Xi, known for his insistence on “zero Covid” and a “war” against the pandemic, has repeatedly stressed the importance of “political security” and the need of “struggles” against challenges and instability.

“Don’t underestimate the Communist party’s and especially Xi’s determination to guard against ‘colour revolution’,” he said.

Online discussion of the protests has been strictly censored, particularly on social media platforms such as Weibo, but information and evidence of the protests are still being shared on more private channels such as WeChat, also monitored by the state.

On Twitter, which is banned in China but has been a key site of reposted protest material, Chinese-language hashtags are being flooded by suspected state actors with pornographic and escort service posts.

Chinese state media has not mentioned the protests at all.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin

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