Hundreds poured into the streets near Beijing’s Liangma Canal on Sunday evening to mourn those lost in a fire in the Western China city of Urumqi in the Xinjiang province just days ago, in a protest that was extraordinary in the tightly controlled authoritarian country.
Once news of the protest went viral on social media, protesters began trickling in — not only to honor the victims but to protest China’s zero-Covid policy — which many believe was responsible for the deaths.
“We don’t want masks, we want freedom. We don’t want COVID tests, we want freedom,” one of the groups chanted earlier, Reuters reported.
At least 10 people were killed, and nine others injured, when a fire broke out at an apartment building in Xinjiang’s capital city.
While the Chinese government tried to dismiss citizens’ claims that its strict lockdown rules contributed to the tragedy, a video surfaced showing first responders were delayed by the measures – preventing them from reaching the residential complex in a timely manner.
One video that was widely circulating on social media in China on Friday evening shows a large group of people marching to a government building in Urumqi and chanting “end lockdowns,” while another shows some residents breaking through lockdown barriers and quarreling with officials, according to CNN.
Placing candles and flowers at a makeshift altar, some protesters held up blank sheets of white paper as a symbolic protest against censorship. As the crowd grew, there was surprisingly little police engagement – an unusual occurrence in the authoritarian state.
Some government authorities, however, were seen filming those at the altar.
Protests were still going strong around 12:30 am and have spread to multiple cities in China.
Some more astonishing moments included: people chanting “We want the vote”, “no to nucleic acid tests yes to freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of cinema, rule of law”, and “we want the truth”, “we don’t want fake news,” AFP Chinese correspondent Laurie Chen tweeted.
“Numbers began to dwindle, and at 1:45am many more police officers arrived. They corralled us further under the bridge, telling us to go home. After getting an official stood with the police to acknowledge he heard protesters’ concerns, protesters were dispersed at around 2:20am,” Chen reported.
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“We are all Xinjiang people! Go, Chinese people! Long live the people!” people chanted. Calling on the government to “end the lockdown,” and “release those arrested.”
Toward the end, around 100 police officers arrived on the scene – followed by vehicles carrying paramilitary police. Fortunately, the crowd was thinning, avoiding the escalation of the conflict.
Chinese President Xi Jinping rules the country with an iron fist, and large demonstrations are usually interrupted violently by police. But for nearly five hours on Sunday, protesters were allowed to voice their opposition without being silenced – and in a rare occurrence, violence wasn’t used to disperse demonstrators.
With a population of roughly four million, Urumqi has been under strict lockdown orders since August, but that may soon change.
Increasing dissent and pushback against the mandates have gotten the attention of local government officials, who vowed to ease restrictions in “low-risk areas,” which will allow residents to leave their apartment buildings on a rotating basis.
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Scenes from tonight’s protest in Beijing, where a few hundred mostly young people gathered near the Liangma canal to mourn for the Urumqi fire victims, light candles, play music and hold up blank sheets of paper. The atmosphere has been mostly calm throughout. pic.twitter.com/B58Lx7wenF
— Laurie Chen (@lauriechenwords) November 27, 2022
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