China rocked by anti-Xi protests amid ‘freedom’ calls

Rolling lockdowns and mass testing have snapped the public’s patience, sparking anger against Communist Party rule

Protests are escalating across China in defiance of President Xi Jinping’s “zero-Covid” policy, challenging the Communist Party’s right to rule.

In unprecedented scenes in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, angry demonstrators called for Xi to resign at the weekend amid invasive mass testing and rolling lockdowns for nearly three years.

“There is an argument that this is now a metaphor for distrust on the part of the Chinese people [on] what Xi Jinping’s regime is doing. The key question is what does the regime do next,” Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, told the BBC on Monday.

Twenty-four hours earlier, up to 1,000 students gathered at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, chanting “democracy.” Many have been barred from leaving the campus for weeks.

Protesters in Shanghai went even further. “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping,” they cried in videos posted on social media in a rare public rebuke of China’s leadership.

“Demonstrations were also spotted at Peking University, Nanjing Communication University, Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, Hunan University, Sichuan International Studies University, [and] the University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences,” Radio Free Asia reported.

“Dozens of other colleges including Suzhou University, Wuhan Conservatory of Music, and the Huazhong Agricultural University also [held] protests with blank sheets of paper, [a symbol of defiance],” the American-funded public broadcaster said. 

Winter of discontent:

  • The demonstrations involving thousands of people were sparked after a fire engulfed an apartment block last week in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi.
  • Zero-Covid restrictions were in place at the time as the blaze killed 10 people.
  • Since then, protests have spread nationwide from Chongqing to Guangzhou.
  • In Wuhan and Lanzhou, Covid-19 testing facilities were trashed.

We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom!

Chinese protestors

Delve deeper: “The tragedy of the Urumqi fire has inspired remarkable bravery across China. These unprecedented protests [have shown] that people are at the end of their tolerance for excessive Covid-19 restrictions,” Hanna Young, the regional director of the human rights group Amnesty International, said.

Between the lines: Police strong-arm tactics have been used to quell the demonstrations in the world’s ultimate surveillance state, rattling Xi’s regime. Already there are echoes of the 1989 protests, which ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre of students in Beijing.

Shaken and stirred: China’s state-run broadcasters have even been told to censor close-up images of mask-free football fans celebrating in packed stadiums at the World Cup in Qatar. Paranoia runs deep in Beijing with no mention of the demonstrations on official media sites.

Big picture: On Monday, Covid-19 new cases surged to a record 40,000 in China, although the official numbers tend to be manipulated just like the economic data. Amid rolling lockdowns and mass testing, public patience has snapped.

What that means: “The outpouring has created new pressures on Xi only a month after he secured a third term as Party head. Censors have moved quickly to scrub photos and video footage of the protests,” The New York Times morning briefing reported.

China Factor comment: Today, we quote protesters in the southern city of Guangzhou. “We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom! Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, [and] personal freedoms. Give [us] back [our] freedom,” they chanted.