Updated November 27, 2022 at 12:47 p.m. ET
BEIJING — Protests against China’s pervasive antivirus controls, which have confined millions of people to their homes, have spread after complaints they may have increased the death toll in an apartment fire in the northwest.
According to a witness, police in Shanghai used pepper spray against about 300 demonstrators. They gathered on Saturday night to mourn the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment fire last week in Urumqi, in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
Videos posted on social media, saying they were filmed in Nanjing to the east, Guangzhou to the south and at least five other cities, showed protesters wearing white hazmat suits fighting with police or dismantling barricades sealing off neighborhoods. Witnesses said there was a protest in Urumqi, but The Associated Press was unable to confirm details of other videos.
President Xi Jinping’s administration faces mounting anger over its “zero-COVID” policy, which has closed access to areas across China to isolate any case, while other governments relax controls and try to deal with the virus to live.
That has kept China’s infection rate lower than that of the United States and other countries. But the ruling Communist Party is facing mounting complaints about the economic and human costs as businesses close and families are isolated for weeks with limited access to food and medicine.
Some protesters have been shown in videos urging Xi to resign or the ruling party to relinquish power.
Party leaders vowed last month to make restrictions less disruptive by relaxing quarantine and other rules, but said they would stick to “zero-COVID”. Meanwhile, a spike in infections that has pushed daily cases past 30,000 for the first time has prompted local authorities to impose restrictions that local residents complain go beyond what’s allowed by the national government.
The Ürümqi fire deaths sparked angry questions online about whether locked doors or other controls might be hampering firefighters, who took three hours to put out the blaze, or victims trying to escape. Authorities denied it, but the disaster became a focus of public anger over anti-disease restrictions, ruling party propaganda and censorship.
In Shanghai, protesters gathered at midnight on Middle Urumqi Road with flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, the deceased rest in peace,” according to one attendee, who gave only his family name, Zhao.
Zhao said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper sprayed. He said the police stepped on his feet when he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes and went barefoot.
According to Zhao, the protesters shouted slogans such as “Xi Jinping, resign, Communist Party, resign,” “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China,” “don’t want PCR (tests), want freedom,” and “freedom of the press.”
Around 100 police officers lined up to prevent the protesters from gathering or leaving, Zhao said. He said buses with more police officers arrived later.
Another protester, who gave only his family name, Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of protesters, but the police stood on the street and let them pass on the sidewalk.
Netizens have posted videos and accounts on Chinese and foreign social media showing protests in Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest, and Urumqi and Korla in Xinjiang.
A video, saying it was filmed in Urumqi, showed protesters chanting, “Remove the Communist Party! Remove Xi Jinping!”
Protests in Xinjiang are particularly risky after security forces cracked down on Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities, which has included mass arrests.
Most of the protesters in the videos were members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group. A Uyghur woman in Urumqi said Uyghurs are too afraid to take to the streets.
“Han Chinese know that if they speak out against the lockdown, they will not be punished,” said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to prison or to camps.”
Posts on Chinese social media were quickly deleted, something Beijing often does to quell criticism it fears could serve as a rallying point for opposition to one-party rule.
People in some parts of Xinjiang have been handcuffed to their homes since early August. Some complain that they do not have access to food and medicine and have posted online appeals for help.
In a possible attempt to placate the public, authorities announced on Saturday that they had achieved “social zero COVID” and restrictions were being eased in Urumqi and Korla. The government said taxi, rail, bus and other public services that had been suspended for weeks would resume. The state-owned China Southern Airlines announced that it would resume flights from Urumqi to four Chinese cities from Monday.
Social media users greeted the news that the disease was under control with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can reach this speed,” wrote a user on social media service Sina Weibo.
Anger boiled over earlier after Urumqi city officials appeared to blame residents of the residential tower for Thursday night’s fire deaths.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak,” Li Wensheng, chief of the Urumqi Fire Department, said at a news conference.
Police announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman accused of posting “false information” about the death toll online.
Late on Friday, the people of Ürümqi marched largely peacefully into the cold winter night in thick, puffy winter jackets.
Videos of protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open, open”. Some screamed and pushed against lines of men in the white hazmat suits.
Two Urumqi residents, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, said large-scale protests broke out on Friday night. One of them said he had friends who attended.
The AP pinpointed the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police in face masks and hospital gowns confronted screaming protesters. In another, a protester spoke to a crowd about his demands. It was unclear how widespread the protests were.
Xi has defended the strategy as an example of the Chinese system’s superiority compared to the United States and other Western countries, which have politicized face mask use and struggled to enact widespread lockdowns.
But support for “zero-COVID” has plummeted in recent months as tragedies sparked public anger.
Last week, the central Zhengzhou city government apologized for the death of a 4-month-old girl who was under quarantine. Her father said his efforts to get her to a hospital were delayed after ambulance workers refused to help them because he tested positive for the virus.
The Uyghur woman in Ürümqi said she has been unable to leave her home or even open her window since August 8. On Friday, she and her neighbors defied the order, opening their windows and protesting loudly.
“No more bans! No more bans!” They yelled loudly at the woman.
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