Xi Jinping faces stiffest challenge to rule as Covid outrage sparks mass protests

- Advertisement -

Xi Jinping faces one of his greatest challenges as president of China after tens of thousands of people took to the streets over Beijing’s strict coronavirus controls and suppression of freedom of speech.

At least 10 cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Chengdu, were shaken by rare political protests over the weekend, triggering clashes with police and security officers that led to a spate of detentions, including of two foreign journalists.

The sudden outbreak of civil disobedience was sparked by outrage after a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, was partly blamed on coronavirus restrictions. While most of the protests appeared to have been stamped out by Monday, they followed months of frustration, especially among China’s young people, with relentless lockdowns, quarantines, mass testing and electronic surveillance under Xi’s zero-Covid policies.

Markets in China soured in early trading on Monday, with the Hang Seng China Enterprises index in Hong Kong falling 4.5 per cent and the renminbi losing ground against the US dollar.

In Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first coronavirus cases emerged, online videos showed thousands of people marching down a popular shopping street, in what appeared to have been the weekend’s biggest single protest.

One person involved told the Financial Times the crowd numbered tens of thousands and “liberated” locked-down neighbourhoods by removing fencing around residential compounds. Demonstrations also broke out in other locations across the city.

The government has urged universities to send students home as soon as possible to quell further dissent on campuses, according to a provincial education official.

In Beijing, the capital, hundreds of students staged peaceful demonstrations on Sunday at the prestigious Tsinghua and Peking universities. Students in Beijing, as well as protesters in other cities, held blank pieces of paper, a rejection of worsening censorship under Xi’s administration.

In the capital, protesters also gathered at a central canal on Sunday, chanting: “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom.” By Monday morning, a dozen police vehicles were stationed at entrances to the canal.

A bus full of police officers idled nearby and groups of others paced up and down paths that run along the water.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, said on Monday US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the protests and is monitoring the situation closely. He said the Biden administration doesn’t support widespread lockdowns in the US at this stage of the pandemic.

“There are people in China that have concerns about that. And they’re protesting that and we believe they should be able to do that peacefully,” Kirby said.

As the vigils over the Urumqi deaths transformed into protests against Xi’s policies, analysts said their scale and stark political demands had not been seen in China for decades. They warned that protesters faced brutal reprisals if dissent flared again.

Xi is the nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong after recently securing an unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist party. A hallmark of his leadership has been expansion of the state’s draconian surveillance security apparatus and swift crackdowns on dissent.

“You’d expect them to have a heavy-handed repressive approach, but that risks creating martyrs, fuelling another wave and giving a rallying cry to the protesters that have already come out,” said John Delury, a China expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“They are smart enough to be aware of the dangers, but they can’t just let it happen either.”

Yuen Yuen Ang, from the University of Michigan, said that while China had always experienced sporadic protests, Beijing feared a “nationwide” movement.

“The protests . . . were not about narrow, local issues. Instead, people were protesting against zero-Covid — a national policy and Xi’s personal agenda, one he had declared that China must ‘stick to without wavering’ only recently in October,” she said.

“This constitutes a challenge to central authority at the highest level.”

At the site of a vigil that began on Saturday evening at a crossroads in Shanghai, police had by Monday morning lined the streets with blue barricades. There was a handful of people taking photos and a long queue of police cars, but no other signs of the large gathering that had escalated on Wulumuqi Road on Sunday.

The incident, which provided some of the most dramatic scenes of civil disobedience in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, continued late into Sunday evening. One person at the site said police eventually started to arrest people “group by group”.

The blue boards were placed to block off the main road from the pavement, where hundreds of people had congregated and occasionally broken out into shouts or jostles with police.

In Shanghai, a BBC reporter was among those detained. In a statement, the British broadcaster said journalist Ed Lawrence was “beaten and kicked” by the police and held for several hours before being released. A Reuters reporter was also briefly detained in Shanghai.

Confusion has spread over the zero-Covid policy. On Monday, Beijing postponed annual civil servant exams, scheduled to be taken by a decade-high 2.5mn people this weekend, citing Covid-19 controls. But in other parts of the country there were signs local officials had eased some restrictions in response to rising public discontent.

The protests spread to Hong Kong on Monday night. Dozens of mostly mainland students and workers and some local residents gathered in the city centre and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, defying a 2020 security law that effectively bans political demonstrations.

“We need to contribute in ways that we can from outside mainland China . . . We hope this can be beneficial to our nation’s democratic spirit,” said one 24-year-old mainlander who declined to give her name because of safety concerns.

Additional reporting by Gloria Li, Nian Liu, Qianer Liu, Wang Xueqiao, Cheng Leng, Arjun Neil Alim, Maiqi Ding, Primrose Riordan, Chan Ho-him, Hudson Lockett and Felicia Schwartz

Read More: Xi Jinping faces stiffest challenge to rule as Covid outrage sparks mass protests

- Advertisement -

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments