Protests in China: where have Covid restrictions been eased? Lockdown rules and President Xi reaction

Protesters yelled slogans including “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down”, “unlock Xinjiang, unlock China”

More Chinese cities have eased some of the strict anti-Covid restrictions as police patrolled their streets to head off protests.

On Thursday (1 December), the government reported 36,061 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, including 31,911 without symptoms. China’s ruling Communist Party vowed to “crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces” following the country’s largest street demonstrations in decades over coronavirus restrictions.

It comes after a massive show of force by security services to deter a recurrence of the protests that broke out over the weekend in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and several other cities. Hundreds of SUVs, vans and armoured vehicles were parked along city streets while police and paramilitary forces conducted random ID checks and searched people’s mobile phones for photos, banned apps or other potential evidence that they had taken part in the demonstrations. The number of people who have been detained at the demonstrations and in follow-up police actions is not known.

Protests had spread beyond Shanghai and Beijing to other major cities including Wuhan and Xi’an, and according to reports have also reached the remote provinces of China. The unrest was fanned by anger over a deadly fire in the western Xinjiang region, where at least 10 people died on Thursday in the fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the north-western region of Xinjiang.

In Shanghai, police used pepper spray to stop around 300 protesters who had gathered at Middle Urumqi Road at midnight, bringing flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace” to memorialise the deaths in Urumqi. It comes as the BBC said one of its journalists had been “attacked” after being arrested while covering the protests. The broadcaster said cameraman Edward Lawrence was “handcuffed” while covering the demonstrations, and then “beaten and kicked” by police.

Elsewhere, videos on social media that said they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Chongqing and Chengdu in the south-west and other cities showed protesters tussling with police in white protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighbourhoods.

Where have Covid restrictions been eased?

Guangzhou in the south, Shijiazhuang in the north, Chengdu in the south-west and other major cities announced they were easing testing requirements and controls on movement. In some areas, markets and bus services reopened.

The announcements did not mention last weekend’s protests in Shanghai, Beijing and at least six other cities against the human cost of anti-virus restrictions that confine millions of people to their homes.

But the timing and publicity suggested President Xi Jinping’s government was trying to mollify public anger after some protesters made the politically explosive demand that Mr Xi resign.

Urumqi authorities earlier announced that residents of low risk areas would be allowed to move freely within their neighbourhoods. Still, many other neighbourhoods remain under lockdown. Officials also triumphantly declared on Saturday that they had basically achieved “societal zero-Covid”, meaning that there was no more community spread and that new infections were being detected only in people already under health monitoring, such as those in a centralised quarantine facility.

Also on Monday, the southern manufacturing and trade metropolis of Guangzhou, the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, announced some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing, citing a need to conserve resources.

Officials have eased anti-virus rules in some scattered areas, such as Urumqi and the city of Korla in Xinjiang. In Beijing, the city government announced it would no longer set up gates to block access to apartment compounds where infections are found.

Economists and health experts have warned that Beijing cannot relax controls that keep most travellers out of China until tens of millions of older people are vaccinated. They say that means “zero-Covid” might not end for as much as another year.

Areas where protests have taken place in China. NW Graphics Team

What has the Communist Party said?

The party commission’s statement, issued after an expanded session on Monday presided over by its head Chen Wenqing, a member of the party’s 24-member Politburo, said the meeting aimed to review the outcomes of 20 October’s party congress.

At that event, President Xi Jinping granted himself a third five-year term as secretary general, potentially making him China’s leader for life, while appointing loyalists to key bodies and eliminating opposing voices.

The statement said: “The meeting emphasised that political and legal organs must take effective measures to … resolutely safeguard national security and social stability.

“We must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law, resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order and effectively maintain overall social stability.”

However, less than a month after seemingly ensuring his political future and unrivalled dominance, Xi, who has signalled he favours regime stability above all, is facing his biggest public challenge yet.

He and the party have yet to directly address the unrest, which spread to college campuses and the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong, as well as sparking sympathy protests abroad.

What were the protests about?

A woman holds a blank sheet of paper as demonstrators protest the deaths caused by an apartment complex fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, at the Langson Library on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, in Irvine, California, on November 29, 2022. - Protests have broken out across China after the Urumqi fire occurred on November 24, 2022. Ten people were reported killed in an apartment building, with delayed fire response due to strict Covid lockdowns being blamed for the deaths. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Most protesters focused their ire on the “zero-Covid” policy that has placed millions under lockdown and quarantine, limiting their access to food and medicine while ravaging the economy and severely restricting travel. Many mocked the government’s ever-changing line of reasoning, as well as claims that “hostile outside foreign forces” were stirring the wave of anger.

The protests began on Friday (25 November) after at least 10 people were killed in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in Xinjiang. That prompted questions about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other controls. Authorities denied that, but the deaths became a focus for public frustration.

Bolder voices called for greater freedom and democracy, and urged Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, as well as the party he leads, to step down – speech considered subversive and punishable with lengthy prison terms.

Earlier on Saturday (26 November), authorities in the Xinjiang region opened up some neighbourhoods in Urumqi after residents held extraordinary late-night demonstrations against the city’s draconian “zero-Covid” lockdown that had lasted more than three months. Many alleged that obstacles caused by anti-virus measures made the fire worse. It took emergency workers three hours to extinguish the blaze, but officials denied the allegations, saying there were no barricades in the building and that residents were permitted to leave.

During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents elsewhere in the city have had their doors chained physically shut, including one who spoke to The Associated Press who declined to be named for fear of retribution. Many in Urumqi believe such brute-force tactics may have prevented residents from escaping in Thursday’s fire and that the official death toll was an undercount.

A protester in Shanghai who gave only his family name, Zhao, said one of his friends was beaten by police and two friends were pepper sprayed. He said police stomped his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process, and left the protest barefoot. He added protesters yelled slogans including “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down”, “unlock Xinjiang, unlock China”, “do not want PCR (tests), want freedom” and “press freedom”.

Around 100 police stood line by line, preventing some protesters from gathering or leaving, and buses carrying more police arrived later, Zhao said. Another protester, who gave only his family name of Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of demonstrators, but that police stood in the road and let protesters pass on the sidewalk. Posts about the protest were deleted immediately on China’s social media, as China’s Communist Party commonly does to suppress criticism.

Late on Friday (25 November), people in Urumqi marched largely peacefully in big puffy winter jackets in the cold winter night. Videos of protests featured people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “open up, open up”. They spread rapidly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed against rows of men in the white whole-body hazmat suits that local government workers and pandemic-prevention volunteers wear, according to the videos.

By Saturday, most had been deleted by censors. The Associated Press could not independently verify all the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be named out of fear of retribution said large-scale protests occurred on Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.

Notes on social media complained that people were being stopped at random for police to check smartphones, possibly looking for prohibited apps such as Twitter, in what they said was a violation of China’s Constitution.

“I am especially afraid of becoming the ‘Xinjiang model’ and being searched on the excuse of walking around,” said a posting signed Qi Xiaojin on the popular Sina Weibo platform, referring to the north-western region where Uyghur and other Muslim minorities are under intense surveillance.

Protesters have used Twitter and other foreign social media to publicise protests while the Communist Party deletes videos and photos from services within China.

What is the zero-Covid policy?

The demonstrations, as well as public anger online, are the latest signs of building frustration with China’s intense approach to controlling Covid-19. It is the only major country in the world that still is fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.

China’s zero-Covid strategy, which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped to keep the country’s case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries.

But people in some areas have been confined to their homes for up to four months, and say they lack reliable food supplies. The ruling party promised last month to reduce the disruption of zero-Covid by changing quarantine and other rules. But public acceptance is wearing thin after a spike in infections prompted cities to tighten controls, fuelling complaints that overzealous enforcement is hurting the public.