Protests are erupting across China, 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.
A deadly fire at an apartment block in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang that killed 10 people and injured nine on Thursday appears to have fueled the anger, as video emerged that seemed to suggest lockdown measures delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.
Protests broke out in cities and at universities across China on Saturday and early Sunday morning, according to social media videos and witness accounts.
Videos widely circulated on Chinese social media show hundreds of people in downtown Shanghai on Saturday lighting candles to mourn the dead from the Xinjiang fire.
The crowd later 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 Beijing’s exceptionally stringent pandemic measures.
Protests have also broken out in the capital city Beijing. One student at the prestigious Peking University told CNN that when he arrived at the protest scene at around 1 a.m. Sunday local time, there were around 100 students, and security guards were using jackets to cover a protest slogan painted on the wall.
“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, dozens of students from Communication University of China, Nanjing gathered 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.