Thousands of people from major cities and universities in China are on the streets to protest against the authorities demanding to be freed not only from incessant Covid tests and lockdowns but strict censorship and the Communist Party’s tightening grip over all aspects of life.
The protesters are also demanding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s resignation. Across the country, “want freedom” has become a slogan for a groundswell of protests which is mainly led by the younger generation. China is witnessing massive protests against restrictions that force millions of people to stay in their homes due to fear of the spread of COVID. The authorities relaxed anti-COVID regulations in a few locations, after the large-scale agitations but upheld its strict “zero- COVID” strategy on Monday.
“Give me liberty or give me death!” crowds shouted in several cities, according to videos circulating online, as vigils to mark the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire in Xinjiang spiraled into political rallies. Videos circulating online seem to suggest China’s strict zero-Covid policy initially prevented emergency workers from accessing the scene, angering residents across the country who have endured three years of varying Covid controls, as reported by CNN.
CNN has verified protests in 16 locations, with reports of others held in dozens of other cities and universities across the country. Some protesters also chanted for free speech, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and other political demands across cities from the eastern financial hub of Shanghai to the capital of Beijing, the southern metropolis of Guangzhou and Chengdu in the west.
While protests in several parts of China appear to have largely dispersed peacefully over the weekend, some saw a stronger response from authorities. The security has been tightened across cities in a country where authorities have far-reaching surveillance and security capabilities.
In Beijing, a heavy police presence was apparent on Monday evening, a day after protests broke out there. In a symbolic protest against ever-tightening censorship, young demonstrators across China held up sheets of white paper – a metaphor for the countless critical posts, news articles and outspoken social media accounts that were wiped from the internet.
“I think in a just society, no one should be criminalized for their speech. There shouldn’t be only one voice in our society – we need a variety of voices,” a Beijing protester told CNN in the early hours of Monday as he marched down the city’s Third Ring Road with a thin pile of white A4 paper.
“I hope in the future, I will no longer be holding a white piece of paper for what I really want to express,” said the protester, who CNN is not naming due to concerns about repercussions for speaking out. Throughout the weekend, censors moved swiftly to scrub videos and photos of the protests from the Chinese internet, though the startling images made headlines worldwide.
In online commentaries, Chinese state media did not mention the protests, instead focusing on the strengths of Beijing’s anti-Covid policies, emphasizing they were both “scientific and effective.” Many protesters are bringing together many liberal-minded young people whose attempts to speak out might otherwise be thwarted by strict online censorship.
A Shanghai resident in their 20s who took part in the candlelight vigil in the early hours of Sunday said they were greeted by other young people holding white papers, and flowers and shouting “want freedom” as they walked toward the makeshift memorial, as reported by CNN.
“My friends and I have all experienced Shanghai’s lockdown, and the so-called ‘iron fist’ (of the state) has fallen on all of us,” they told CNN, “That night, I felt that I could finally do something. I couldn’t sit still, I had to go.” They broke into tears quietly in the crowd as the chants demanding freedom grew louder.
“At that moment, I felt I’m not alone,” they said. “I realized that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.” Political dissent. In some cases, the protests have taken on an even more defiant tone and openly called for political change.
“Step Down Xi Jinping”
During the first night of the demonstrations in Shanghai, a crowd shouted “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” in an unprecedented, direct challenge to the top leader. On Sunday night, some protesters again chanted for the removal of Xi.
In Chengdu, the protesters did not name Xi, but their message was hard to miss. “Opposition to dictatorship!” chanted hundreds of people packing the bustling river banks in a popular food and shopping district on Sunday evening, according to videos and a participant, as reported by CNN.
“We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors!” they shouted in a thinly veiled reference to the Chinese leader, who last month began a norm-shattering third term in office. According to the participant, the crowd also protested against revisions to the party charter and the state constitution – which enabled Xi to further cement his hold on power and scrap presidential term limits.
The gathering started as a small candlelight vigil for people killed in the fire in Urumqi on Thursday, much like Shanghai. The vigil turned into a louder arena to air political grievances, as more people gathered.
“Everyone started shouting these slogans very naturally,” the participant was quoted by CNN as saying. “It is so rare that we have such a large-scale gathering and demonstration. The words of mourning didn’t feel enough, and we had to shout out some words that we want to say”.
To her, the experience of suffocating censorship inevitably fuels the desire for “institutional and spiritual freedom,” and mourning the victims and demanding democracy and freedom are two “inseparable” things.
“We all know that the reason why we have to keep undergoing lockdowns and Covid tests is that this is a political movement, not a scientific and logical response of epidemic prevention,” she said. “That’s why we have more political demands other than lifting lockdowns.”
The Chengdu protester said she felt encouraged by the wave of demonstrations sweeping the country. “It turns out there are so many people who are wide awake,” she said. “I feel like I can see a glimmer of light coming through ahead.”
(With Inputs from CNN)