Hundreds of demonstrators and police have clashed in Shanghai as protests over China’s stringent Covid restrictions flared for a third day and spread to several cities, in the biggest test for president Xi Jinping since he secured a historic third term in power.
The wave of civil disobedience is unprecedented in mainland China in the past decade, as frustration mounts over Xi’s signature zero-Covid policy nearly three years into the pandemic.
Protests triggered by a deadly apartment fire in the far west of the country last week took place on Sunday in cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou.
In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totalling at least 1,000 people were gathered along the Chinese capital’s 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.
On Sunday in Shanghai, police kept a heavy presence on Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi, and where a candlelight vigil the day before turned into protests.
“We just want our basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far,” said a 26-year-old protester in Shanghai who declined to be identified.
“The people here aren’t violent, but the police are arresting them for no reason. They tried to grab me but the people all around me grabbed my arms so hard and pulled me back so I could escape.”
By Sunday evening, hundreds of people gathered in the area. Some jostled with police trying to disperse them. People held up blank sheets of paper as an expression of protest.
On Saturday, people in Shanghai had chanted “No PCR tests, we want freedom!” followed by rounds of repeated calls for “Freedom! Freedom!”
The protests erupted on Friday in Urumqi, the regional capital of the far west Xinjiang region, after footage of a fire in a residential building that killed at least 10 people the day before led to accusations that a Covid lockdown was a factor in the death toll.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny Covid measures had hampered escape and rescue. Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.
Late on Sunday, a BBC journalist was seen on camera being “beaten and kicked by police” before being arrested in the city. Footage on social media showed Edward Lawrence being dragged to the ground in handcuffs, while he was seen saying in another video: “Call the consulate now”.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC is extremely concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed while covering the protests in Shanghai.
“He was held for several hours before being released,” the spokesperson said, adding that he had been covering the protests as an accredited journalist.
Lawrence, a senior journalist and camera operator for the BBC’s China bureau, was tweeting from the scene of the protest in Shanghai on Sunday morning UK time.
He wrote: “I’m at the scene of last night’s extraordinary anti Covid-zero protest in Shanghai. Many people are gathered here quietly watching. Lots of cops.”
In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began three years ago, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents take to the streets, smashing through metal barricades, overturning Covid testing tents and demanding an end to lockdowns.
Other cities that have seen public dissent include Lanzhou in the north-west, where residents on Saturday overturned Covid staff tents and smashed testing booths, posts on social media appear to show.
Widespread public protest is rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent their frustration on social media, where they play cat-and-mouse with censors.
China has stuck with Xi’s zero-Covid policy even as much of the world has lifted most restrictions. While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday, prompting yet more lockdowns in cities across the country. Beijing has defended the policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system.
Frustration is boiling just over a month after Xi secured a third term at the helm of China’s Communist party.
“This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one response will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters,” said Dan Mattingly, assistant professor of political science at Yale University.
Still, he said, the unrest is far from that seen in 1989, when protests culminated in the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
He added that as long as Xi had China’s elite and the military on his side, he would not face any meaningful risk to his grip on power.
Reuters contributed to this report