China protests turn violent as zero-Covid anger spreads

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

Social media posts have blamed the deaths of 10 people in the blaze on Thursday in an apartment block in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on Covid-19 restrictions, despite denials from authorities.

At Wulumuqi road in Shanghai, named after the Xinjiang city, hundreds of people attended a vigil late on 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 morning. Some protesters were standing on police cars and others chanted “we don’t want PCR tests”.

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 based around the expression “[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 began as a quiet commemoration of the people who died in the fire in Urumqi, but later got “out of control”.

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

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

In Nanjing, footage circulating online showed students gathering at a vigil at the Communication University of Nanjing.

In Beijing’s Peking University, images circulated of graffiti on steps repeating the slogans from the bridge in October, including “we don’t want PCR tests, we want food”.

Images showing protesters holding up white sheets of paper, to symbolise censorship, were spread widely on social media.

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

Authorities are grappling with Covid outbreaks in many large cities, including Guangzhou, Chongqing and Beijing. China’s previous outbreaks have been successfully suppressed but they typically took place in single cities, such as in Shanghai early this year.

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

Source: Financial Times

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