Protesters angered by lockdowns call for China's Xi to step down

'Serve for people', shout protesters as anger spreads across China

Protesters against China's strict Covid controls have singled out President Xi Jinping as rare demonstrations continue to spread across the country.

Police forcibly cleared the demonstrators in Shanghai who called for President Xi's resignation and the end of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) rule.

Hours later, people rallied again in the same spot, and reports indicate protests also spread to at least seven other cities, including the capital of Beijing, and dozens of university campuses.

The BBC said one of its journalists, who was covering the protests, was "beaten and kicked by police", before being arrested.

On Sunday night, the broadcaster said it was “very concerned” after confirming cameraman Edward Lawrence “was attacked” in Shanghai. Footage on social media showed him being dragged to the ground in handcuffs, while he was seen saying in another video: “Call the consulate now”.

According to officials, Mr Lawrence was arrested "for his own good" in case he caught Covid from the crowd, but the BBC said it did "not consider this a credible explanation".

Elsewhere, protesters were heard chanting "Xi Jinping, step down, CCP, Step down."

Largescale protests are exceedingly rare in China, where public expressions of dissent are routinely stifled - but a direct rebuke of Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, is extraordinary.

'I don't want a Covid test, I want freedom'

They had gathered on Saturday night to mourn the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment fire last week in Urumqi in the Xinjiang region in the northwest.

President Xi’s government faces mounting anger at its ‘zero-Covid’ policy that has shut down access to areas throughout China in an attempt to isolate every case at a time when other governments are easing controls and trying to live with the virus.

ITV News Journalist Megumi Lim said it's extremely rare to see protests like this in China or in Beijing.

Reporting from the city, she said: "Hundreds of people are out on the streets to protest the 'zero Covid' measures that they're so tired of.

"People are shouting slogans: I don't want a Covid test, I want freedom.

"What began as a vigil commemorating and mourning the 10 people who died in the fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang because the fire department couldn't get to the blaze because of lockdown that was enforced there.

"People are very angry and I think things have reached a boiling point here in Beijing."

The protest began at 9pm Beijing time and hundreds of people were still on the streets at 1am.

That has kept China’s infection rate lower than the United States and other countries, but the ruling Communist Party faces growing complaints about the economic and human cost.

Party leaders promised last month to make restrictions less disruptive by easing quarantine and other rules but said they were sticking to ‘zero-Covid.’

Meanwhile, an upsurge in infections that pushed daily cases above 30,000 for the first time has led local authorities to impose restrictions residents complain exceed what is allowed by the national government.

The fire deaths in Urumqi triggered an outpouring of angry questions online about whether firefighters who needed three hours to extinguish the blaze or victims trying to escape might have been obstructed by locked doors or other controls.

Chinese police officers block off access to a site where protesters had gathered in Shanghai. Credit: AP

Authorities denied that, but the disaster became a focal point for public anger about anti-disease restrictions, ruling party propaganda and censorship.

In Shanghai, protesters gathered at Middle Urumqi Road at midnight with flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace,” according to a participant who would give only his family name, Zhao. Ha said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper-sprayed.

He said police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes and left barefoot.

According to Zhao, 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.”

Protesters had gathered in China in November. Credit: AP

Around 100 police stood in lines to prevent protesters from gathering or leaving, Zhao said. He said buses with more police arrived later.

Another protester, who gave only his family name, Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of demonstrators, but police stood in the road and let them pass on the sidewalk.

People posted videos and accounts on Chinese and foreign social media showing protests in Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest and Urumqi and Korla in Xinjiang.

A video that said it was shot in Urumqi showed protesters chanting, “Remove the Communist Party! Remove Xi Jinping!”

Protests in Xinjiang are especially risky following a security crackdown against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities that has included mass detentions.

Residents stand in line for routine Covid tests in Beijing on Sunday. Credit: AP

Most protesters in the videos were members of China's dominant Han ethnic group. A Uyghur woman in Urumqi said Uyghurs were too scared to take to the streets.

“Han Chinese people know they will not be punished if they speak against the lockdown,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retaliation.

“Uyghurs are different. If we dare say such things, we will be taken to prison or to the camps.”

Posts on Chinese social media were quickly deleted, which Beijing often does to suppress criticism it worries might serve as a rallying point for opposition to one-party rule.

Anger boiled over earlier after Urumqi city officials appeared to blame the deaths from Thursday night's fire on the apartment tower’s residents.

Some protesters were taken away by police on a coach. Credit: AP

“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” said Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s fire department, at a news conference.

Police announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman on charges of spreading “untrue information” about the death toll online.

Two Urumqi residents who declined to be named for fear of retribution said large-scale protests occurred Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.

Last week, the government of the central city of Zhengzhou apologized for the death of a four-month-old girl who was in quarantine.

Her father said his efforts to take her to a hospital were delayed after ambulance workers balked at helping them because he tested positive for the virus.

The Uyghur woman in Urumqi said she had been unable to leave her apartment since August 8, and was not even allowed to open her window.

On Friday, she and her neighbours defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest.

“No more lockdowns! No more lockdowns!” they screamed, according to the woman.

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