“There were people everywhere,” said Chen, a 29-year-old Shanghai resident who arrived at the vigil around 2 a.m. Sunday. “At first people were shouting for the quarantine to be lifted in Xinjiang, and then it became ‘Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party step down,'” he said.
The immediate trigger for the protests, which were also seen at universities in Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing on Saturday, was Thursday’s deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in China’s far northwest. Ten people, including three children, have died after emergency firefighters were unable to get close enough to an apartment building engulfed in flames. Residents consider the quarantine measures to be a hindrance to rescue efforts.
Officials on Friday denied that the Covid-19 restrictions were a factor, saying that “the ability of some residents to save themselves is very poor”, prompting further ridicule and outrage across China’s social media platforms. Residents of Urumqi, one of China’s most violent cities under a wider security crackdown, turned out for demonstrations on Friday. Many waved the Chinese national flag and called for the complete lifting of the quarantine.
That unrest spread. On Saturday, Shanghai residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on the middle road of Velumochi, also known as Urumqi, which turned into a protest. Photos sent to The Washington Post by a photographer on the scene showed protesters holding blank papers — a symbolic protest against the country’s pervasive censorship — and laying flowers and candles for the victims as police looked on.
One person held papers with the number “10” written in Uyghur and Chinese in reference to the 10 victims in Urumqi. The crowd began to pass through the blank pages.
“Everybody was holding it,” said Meng, a photographer who gave only his last name due to safety concerns. No one said anything, but we all knew what it meant. Delete all you want. You cannot censor the unsaid.”
Such demonstrations are extremely rare in China, where authorities move quickly to stamp out all forms of dissent. Authorities are particularly wary of protests at universities, the site of pro-democracy protests in 1989 that spread across the country and ended in bloody crackdowns and massacres around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
With record cases of Covid, China is trying to close the safety gap
At the Communications University of China in Nanjing, mocking “Covid Zero” posters were removed on Saturday, prompting one student to stand for hours in protest holding a blank piece of paper. Hundreds of students participated in solidarity.
Some people laid flowers on the ground to pay their respects to the victims of the fire and chanted “Sleep in Peace”. Others sang the Chinese national anthem as well as the left-wing anthem “The Internationale”. They shouted: Long live the people!
“I used to feel alone, but yesterday everyone stood together,” said a 21-year-old photography student, who did not want to be named due to safety concerns. I feel that we are all brave, brave enough to claim the rights we are owed, brave enough to criticize these wrongs, brave enough to take a stand.
Students are like a spring that gets compressed every day. Yesterday, that spring came back again. He said.
Videos posted on social media on Sunday showed a crowd of students at Tsinghua University in Beijing holding blank papers and chanting: “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech!” “If we don’t speak out for fear of arrest, I believe our people will be disappointed in us,” a young woman shouted over the loudspeaker. As a Tsinghua student, I will regret it all my life.
Crowds also gathered at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts and held up their phones as part of a vigil for those who died in Urumqi, according to social media posts. Other posts show vague protest slogans at universities in four cities and two provinces. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, videos showed people gathering in the streets late Sunday. “We don’t want rulers for life,” they cried. China does not need an emperor.
Across the country, and not just on campuses, citizens seem to be reaching a breaking point. Called “Covid Zero,” they have endured nearly three years of relentless controls that have sealed many in their homes, sent them to quarantine centers or banned them from traveling. Residents should perform frequent corona tests and monitor their movement and health status.
The Urumqi fire follows a bus crash in September that killed 27 people while being transported to a quarantine center. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai left residents without enough food and sparked protests online and offline. Deaths related to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old child who died after his parents failed to take him to hospital, have added to public outrage.
Health officials say this strategy of stopping transmission as quickly as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent a surge in severe cases and deaths from overwhelming the health care system. As a result of the low incidence rate of the disease, China’s population of 1.4 billion has a low level of natural immunity. Those vaccinated received home-made vaccines that were more effective against the more infectious form of omicron.
As China eases coronavirus restrictions, confusion and anxiety follow
The Xinjiang fires also come after weeks of growing frustration over pandemic policies, which in some places have been eased and then tightened again amid a new surge of cases. On Sunday, China reported 39,791 new infections, the fourth straight day of a record number of cases.
An article in the state-run People’s Daily on Sunday called for a “stubborn commitment” to current Covid policies. At a briefing on Sunday, Urumqi officials said public transport would partially resume from Monday as part of efforts to gradually lift quarantine measures.
In Shanghai, police eventually stormed the venue and blocked road access. They clashed with the protesters and pushed them into cars before dispersing the crowd around 5am. At one point, the crowd tried to stop police from pulling over a man who was singing a poem in honor of the victims.
Videos released on Sunday show a crowd in the area shouting:let them go! In an apparent reference to those arrested, Chen said he had witnessed dozens of arrests.
“I’m not the type of person to be a leader, but if there’s an opportunity to speak or do something to help, I want to,” he said.
Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.