Xiayu thought he was doomed when several police officers pinned him to the ground in the early hours of Sunday.
Hours earlier, he had joined a vigil in downtown Shanghai for the victims of a deadly fire in the far-western city of Urumqi in Xinjiang. Dozens of people stood around candles in a somber mood, while police officers in reflective vests kept a close watch. Some residents sang The Internationale and songs from the musical Les Misérables.
But as the crowd grew, the atmosphere shifted. Scattered chants rang out, as people called for an end to mandatory COVID tests and lockdowns. Some demanded freedom of speech, gaining confidence as they vocalized their demands. Soon, Xiayu was among people pumping their fists in the air, shouting slogans few could ever imagine saying out loud in the authoritarian country, where criticisms of the government could result in years of jail. “Xi Jinping, step down,” they shouted, taking aim at China’s leader. “The Communist Party, step down.”
“I want to stand with those who are courageous and do what I can to help them,” Xiayu told VICE World News, using a nickname to avoid reprisal from the Chinese government. He was subdued by several officers after he saw a girl being roughed up and tried to intervene. To his luck, he was released on the spot after a few minutes. But by the end of the night, more demonstrators were detained and taken away in police vehicles.
Similar scenes repeated across the country over the weekend, as public frustrations against the country’s draconian zero-COVID policy boiled over.
At least ten—many of them Uyghurs—were killed on Thursday after a residential block caught fire in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, which had been under lockdown for more than 100 days. The incident triggered national outrage as many questioned the official toll and blamed COVID restrictions for delaying rescue efforts and preventing residents from evacuating. Viral footage captured residents’ heart-wrenching screams for help as firefighters struggled to reach the blaze, while survivors showed entrances to the block sealed by wires—a measure also used in other cities to enforce lockdowns.
Hundreds took to the streets in Urumqi on Friday night, confronting government officials in a public square and demanding an end to the lockdown. Large, spontaneous demonstrations spread like wildfire to major cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Chongqing over the weekend. Social media footage that emerged faster than they could be censored showed protesters marching along thoroughfares and, in some cases, clashing with police and tearing down testing booths.
Many held up blank pieces of papers—a protest of the censorship that permeates every aspect of life in China and a sign of grieving.
“Our own people died from a human-made disaster. Did we have any reporting from official outlets? No, all we had were lies and silence,” a middle-aged woman wrapped in a down jacket shouted on the streets of Beijing. “All our accusations and mourning are in our heart.”
In neighborhoods in at least a dozen Chinese cities, residents challenged COVID measures implemented by local authorities and fought for their removal. Students at dozens of universities, including Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University, staged rallies to commemorate the victims and oppose the zero-COVID policy.
The recent wave of protests stood out both in terms of their scale and the solidarity protesters across the country displayed, said Luwei Rose Luqiu, an assistant professor of journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University. While the number of demonstrators in each area was mostly in the hundreds, such rallies are unprecedented under the rule of Xi, who has stamped out dissent and smothered civil society. In the capital, Beijing, residents called for the release of Shanghai protesters. In Shanghai, protesters vowed to stand with those suffering in Urumqi.
“What is most significant is that we’re seeing multiple groups coming together under a common frame to mount protests in multiple cities at the same time,” William Hurst, a professor of Chinese development at Cambridge University, told VICE World News. “Workers, students, and others are uniting around an anti-lockdown articulation of otherwise quite separate grievances.”
The protests have also offered a rare measure of public opinion on the extreme lengths the Chinese government has gone in trying to eradicate the virus, from the use of disruptive lockdowns to frequent testing and centralized quarantine. “While the fatal fire may be the spark that lit the prairie fire, the latest outpour of fury is the result of an accumulation of public discontent,” Luqiu said.
Three years since the pandemic first started, many residents are still grappling with stringent curbs that accompany every fresh outbreak, despite the government’s promise earlier this month to ease restrictions.
Then there were the hidden costs of the policy. The fatal fire is but the latest in a long line of tragedies tied to the country’s COVID policy. In September, 27 were killed in Guiyang, in China’s southwest, after a bus chauffeuring passengers to quarantine crashed. Earlier this month, a toddler in the northwestern city of Lanzhou died from carbon monoxide poisoning after a lockdown delayed medical treatment.
“The grievances caused by zero-COVID are not just lack of freedom under strict social control, but also violent enforcement of quarantine policies, human suffering due to malfunctioning healthcare systems, and economic losses for small businesses and workers, which really transcend social and regional boundaries,” said Chenchen Zhang, an assistant professor in international relations at Durham University.
At the same time, examples of people openly defying rules to criticize the authorities and successfully pushing back against lockdowns have inspired others to stand up and defend their rights, paving the way for the latest outcry, Luqiu added. Across the country, protesters echoed the slogans of the Bridge Man, who hung banners on a highway overpass criticizing Xi and his policies days before he secured a third term as the country’s leader. The man was detained minutes later and his whereabouts remain unknown till now.
Few of the protesters were under the illusion that their actions could bring about any substantial changes to the COVID policy, not to mention the wider political system. But many found a sense purpose in being part of a larger cause.
At the vigil in Shanghai, Xiayu was vexed by some protesters who were uncomfortable with shouting political slogans. Some urged others not to “distort the nature of the gathering” or shout “slogans that are out of line,” he said.
Yet he was grateful to those who stood up for him when he was detained. “All these little moments were really touching to me. It makes me feel that it is meaningful to stand with these people,” Xiayu said.
It was in this spirit that, despite his narrow escape, Xiayu returned to the same site on Sunday night. This time, he found far more people than the night before, but also three times as many police officers. A friend was detained and by Monday evening, he has yet to hear from him.
“People have yet to really articulate their demands. Those who voice more radical demands might be labeled as foreign forces and many just simply want to return to a normal life,” Lisa, another student who joined the rally on Sunday, told VICE World News. She asked to use her English name only to avoid government reprisal. She herself yearns for much more: freedom of speech and press, an end to the brutal crackdown on Xinjiang, release of the activists, feminists, and human rights lawyers that have been arrested in recent years. The list goes on and on. “But just having a normal life feels like a distant hope,” she said.
Less than an hour after she arrived, police began dispersing the crowd in the district surrounding Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi, zoning in on some residents who did not leave fast enough. Lisa saw a trail of blood on the floor around a man who was detained, and witnessed police dragging another man off his motorbike. Security officers also set up blockades along the streets and she had to show shopping receipts in order to pass.
A friend was detained in the early hours of Sunday and released nearly 20 hours later, she said. Police confiscated the friend’s phone and said they would hold it for 30 days, she said.
“I honestly don’t know what we could achieve and I have no expectation, but I am in,” Lisa said. “Participating gives me some strength. At least our collective memories aren’t just lining up to do COVID tests together.”
Elsewhere in the country, in Chengdu, police officers cordoned off Wang Ping Street on Sunday evening, when people had planned to gather with flowers and candles for a vigil. A large crowd assembled nevertheless, spilling over to another street across the river, Zhu, a witness at the scene, told VICE World News, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions.
Near 9 p.m., police officers deployed a car with a signal jammer that blocked off cell phone receptions and the internet, he said. Then the streets, including the street lamps and decorative lights on trees, abruptly went dark and plainclothes officers rushed out and nabbed any protesters they could find, he recalled. Zhu ran for his life. “The crowd was in total panic. The road was covered in trampled flowers,” he said.
Some did not find a community, but did their part regardless in hope of supporting the movement rippling across the country.
Qizi, a university student in the southern city of Zhuhai, placed candles in a makeshift memorial on her campus and secretly put up memos with slogans. “Give me liberty, or give me death,” she scribbled on one. She said hardly any of her classmates knew of the fire or the protests. Chinese media outlets hardly covered the protests, while clips and photos were erased from social media platforms, as censors went into overdrive.
“I keep thinking, How can I contribute?” she told VICE World News, using a nickname. “At the same time, I feel conflicted. Most people wouldn’t even know what these candles are for.”
In response to the memos, the school has stepped up security and increased the number of guards patrolling the campus. A classmate was summoned by school authorities for questioning.
Similarly, across the country, the momentum of the protests will be extremely difficult to sustain. In Shanghai, officers began on Monday randomly checking passersby’ phones for foreign apps blocked within the country, including Instagram and Telegram. In Urumqi, officers have tracked down protesters and arrested them from their homes.
Luqiu, of Hong Kong Baptist University, pointed out that the protests in the last two days have managed to catch authorities off guard, but they would be far more prepared in the near future and have no shortage of tools to clampdown on dissent and control the population. “They would also arrest people they consider leaders as a warning to others,” she added.
But like many taking part in the protests, Qizi believes that their actions have value even if they have yet to bear fruit. “It doesn’t matter if a few days later, people begin to worship the Chinese Communist Party again or if the government starts to cut off the internet like they do in Xinjiang, this collective action is a breakthrough that will stay in people’s memories,” she said.