“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 to lift the blockade on Xinjiang, and then it became ‘Xi Jinping, resign, Communist Party resign!'” he said, giving only his last name due to security concerns.
The immediate cause of the protests, which were also seen at universities in Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing on Saturday, was a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in far northwest China, on Thursday. Ten people, including three children, have died after emergency fire services failed to get close enough to a burning apartment building. Residents blamed the lockdown measures for hampering rescue efforts.
Officials on Friday denied that Covid-19 restrictions were a factor, saying some residents were “very weak in their ability to save themselves,” prompting more ridicule and outrage on Chinese social media platforms. Residents of Urumqi, one of China’s hardest-hit cities under a massive security crackdown, protested on Friday. Many raised the Chinese national flag and called for the blockade to be lifted completely.
The unrest spread. On Saturday, residents of Shanghai gathered on the central Wulumuqi highway, named after Urumqi, for a candlelight vigil that turned into a demonstration. Photos sent to The Washington Post by a photographer at the scene showed protesters holding up blank sheets of paper — a symbolic protest against the country’s widespread censorship — and laying flowers and candles for the victims as police looked on.
One person wrote a piece of paper with the number “10” in Uighur and Chinese, referring to the 10 victims of Urumqi. The crowd started passing the blanks.
“Everyone was holding it,” said Meng, the photographer, who gave only his last name due to security concerns. “Nobody said anything, but we all knew what it meant. Delete all you want. You can’t censor what hasn’t been said.”
Such protests are extremely rare in China, where authorities are quick to crack down on all forms of dissent. Authorities are particularly wary of demonstrations at universities, the site of the 1989 pro-democracy protests that spread across the country and ended in bloody repression and massacres around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
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At the Communication University of China in Nanjing, posters mocking “covid-zero” were removed on Saturday, prompting one student to stand for hours holding a blank piece of paper in protest. Hundreds of students joined in solidarity.
Some laid flowers on the ground and chanted “keep calm” in honor of the victims of the fire. Others sang the Chinese national anthem as well as the “Internationale” anthem. “Long live the people!” they shouted.
“I used to feel alone, but yesterday everyone stood together,” said a 21-year-old photography student, who asked not to be named because of security concerns. “I feel that we are all brave, brave enough to pursue the rights we’ve been given, brave enough to criticize these wrongs, brave enough to take a stand.”
“Students are like a spring that is tapped every day. That spring started flowing again yesterday,” 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!” A young woman shouted through the loudspeaker: “If we don’t speak out because we are afraid of being arrested, I believe that our people will be disappointed with us. As a Tsinghua student, I will regret this for the rest of my life.”
According to social media posts, crowds also gathered at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, holding up their phones as part of a vigil for those who died in Urumqi. Other posts showed vague protest signs on campuses in four cities and two provinces. In Chengdu, a city in the southwest, videos showed people gathering on the streets late Sunday. “We don’t want lifelong rulers,” they shouted. “China needs no emperor.”
Across the country, not just at universities, citizens have reached breaking point. Dubbed “covid zero”, they have endured almost three years of unprecedented surveillance, with many being sealed in their homes, sent to quarantine centers or banned from travel. Residents must undergo repeated tests for the coronavirus and control of their movement and health status.
The Urumqi fire followed 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 online and offline protests. Deaths linked to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old boy who died after his parents were unable to take him to hospital, have fueled public anger.
Health authorities say that this strategy of stopping the transmission of Covid as soon as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent the increase in serious cases and deaths that will overwhelm the health system. As a result of its low infection rate, China’s population of 1.4 billion has a low level of natural immunity. Those vaccinated received domestically produced vaccines that are less effective against the more infectious variant of the microbe.
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The Xinjiang fires also come after several weeks of particularly growing frustration over pandemic policies, which softened and then intensified again in some places amid a fresh surge in cases. On Sunday, China reported 39,791 new infections, its fourth straight day of a record number of cases.
An article in the state-run Halki Diyarbakir newspaper on Sunday called for an “irrevocable commitment” to current Covid-19 policies. In a briefing on Sunday, Urumqi officials said public transport would partially resume on Monday as part of efforts to gradually lift the restrictive measures.
In Shanghai, the police finally cracked down on the vigilante and blocked access to the road. They clashed with protesters and pushed them into cars before dispersing the crowd around 5am to stop police from dragging away a man who was reciting a poem in honor of the victims.
Videos released on Sunday show a crowd in the area shouting “Let them go!” reference to arrested persons. Chen said he saw dozens of people arrested.
“I’m not the type of person to be a leader,” he said, “but if there’s an opportunity to speak up or do something to help, I want to.”
Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.