President Xi’s government faces mounting anger at its zero-Covid policy that has shut down access to areas throughout China in an attempt to isolate every case at a time when other governments are easing controls and trying to live with the virus.
‘Xi Jinping, step down‘
The ruling Communist Party is facing growing complaints about the economic and human cost as businesses close and families are isolated for weeks with limited access to food and medicine. Some protesters were shown in videos shouting for Xi to step down or the ruling party to give up power.
In Shanghai, police used pepper spray against about 300 protesters after they raised slogans such as “Xi Jinping, step down”, “Communist Party, step down”, “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China” and “do not want PCR (tests), want freedom … press freedom”.
A video that said it was shot in Urumqi showed protesters chanting, “Remove the Communist Party! Remove Xi Jinping!”
In several cities, protesters clashed with police in white protective suits and dismantled barricades used to lockdown neighbourhoods.
The recent spate of agitations were triggered after 10 people were killed in an apartment fire last week in Urumqi in the Xinjiang region. Witnesses said the apartment was under partial lockdown and harsh Covid curbs hampered rescue efforts and response.
Covid cases rising
China on Saturday reported its fourth straight daily record of 39,791 new Covid infections. It had reported 35,183 new cases a day earlier. China’s capital and mega-cities continue to struggle to contain outbreaks, with Chongqing and Guangzhou reporting the bulk of new infections.
Local cases in Beijing continued to jump, rising 66% to 4,307 cases, compared with 2,595 the previous day, local government data showed. Chongqing, a southwestern city of 32 million people, reported 8,861 new locally transmitted infections, up almost 15% from the 7,721 recorded a day before.
Guangzhou, a prosperous city in the south of nearly 19 million people, reported a marginal decrease in local cases at 7,412, compared with 7,419 a day before, local authorities said.
The increase in infections has prompted authorities to double down its much-criticised zero-Covid policy, which in turn has mobilised a section of citizens fed up with the draconian measures.
Blank sheets of paper
Protesters have turned to blank sheets of paper to express their anger over Covid restrictions as widespread outpouring of public dissent has gone beyond social media to some of China’s streets and top universities.
Images and videos circulated online showed students at universities in cities, including Nanjing and Beijing, holding up blank sheets of paper in silent protest, a tactic used in part to evade censorship or arrest.
In Shanghai, a crowd held a candlelight vigil for the Urumqi victims and raised blank sheets of paper, according to witnesses and videos. Similar sheets of paper could be seen held by people gathering on the grounds of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University to sing the Chinese national anthem.
Similar tactics were used by demonstrators in Moscow to protest against the Ukraine war. At the height of the Hong Kong protests in 2020, activists there also raised blank sheets of white paper to avoid using slogans banned under the strict national security law.
On social media
Widespread in-person protests are rare in China, where room for dissent has been all-but eliminated under President Xi Jinping, forcing citizens mostly to vent on social media where they play cat-and-mouse games with censors.
Several Internet users showed solidarity by posting blank white squares or photos of themselves holding blank sheets of paper on their WeChat timelines or on Weibo. By Sunday morning, the hashtag “white paper exercise” was blocked on Weibo, prompting users to lament the censorship.
“If you fear a blank sheet of paper, you are weak inside,” one Weibo user posted.
Lockdowns to quell dissent
Protests in China are rare and usually met with swift, and often violent, repercussions by authorities.
But unrest over harsh Covid norms has pushed thousands to come out onto the streets.
There are also fears among the population that the government is using Covid lockdowns to quell dissent over pay disparity, labour conditions, housing crisis and other issues.
Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, effectively went into lockdown from Friday for five days. Authorities have ordered residents of eight districts in Zhengzhou, in the central province of Henan, not to leave the area and have built barriers around “high-risk” apartment buildings and set up checkpoints to restrict travel.
However, there have been only a handful of coronavirus cases in the city.
The lockdown of 6 million people in Zhengzhou in fact follows clashes between police and workers furious over pay and labour conditions. The lockdown orders came after protests erupted over conditions and pay at Foxconn’s vast iPhone factory on the outskirts of the city, with fresh images of rallies emerging on Friday.
Video footage published on social media showed a large group of people walking down a street in the east of the city, some holding signs.
In the southeastern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, millions of people have been ordered not to leave their homes without a negative virus test. Social media footage published on Friday showed residents of the city’s Haizhu district dismantling barricades and throwing objects at police in hazmat attire.
The protesters also raised slogans over delayed or insufficient wages, and discontent over the worsening housing crisis.
Some of China’s biggest cities, from Beijing to southern Guangzhou and sprawling Chongqing, are tightening curbs and ordering large swaths of their population indoors as Covid infections soared to new daily records this week. Shanghai endured a grueling two-month lockdown earlier this year.
Protests becoming more frequent
The continued tension over Covid curbs and resultant stress on the economy has pushed many people to speak out against the administration over other issues.
According to Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor, 668 incidents of dissent were observed in the country from July to September this year. Cases of dissent have risen significantly over the past 2 months.
“Among the 668 incidents, 636 cases (95%) occurred offline, such as demonstrations, strikes, and occupations; while 32 cases (5%) involved online dissent,” it said.
The report said the greatest number of events occurred in the provinces of Hebei (77), Henan (72), Guangdong (49) and Shaanxi (49).
From nationwide protests by property owners to public anger over frequents lockdowns, there have been several instances of dissent in China.
(With inputs from agencies)