Protesters angered by lockdowns are calling for China’s Xi to resign

SHANGHAI (AP) — Protesters angered by strict antivirus measures have called for the resignation of China’s powerful leader, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to quell demonstrations on Sunday that posed a rare direct challenge to the ruling represent the Communist Party.

Police with pepper spray dispersed protesters in Shanghai demanding the resignation of Xi Jinping and an end to one-party rule, but hours later, people gathered again at the same spot. The police broke up the demonstration again and a reporter saw arrested protesters being driven away in a bus.

The protests, which began Friday and have spread to cities including the capital, Beijing and dozens of universities, are the most widespread anti-ruling party opposition demonstration in decades.

In video of the Shanghai protest, confirmed by The Associated Press, shouts against Xi, the most powerful leader since at least the 1980s, and the Chinese Communist Party rang out loud and clear: “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!”

Three years after the virus emerged, China is the only major country still trying to stop transmission of COVID-19. Its “zero-COVID” strategy suspended access to neighborhoods for weeks. Some cities are conducting daily virus tests on millions of residents.

That has kept China’s infection numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries, but public acceptance has waned. People quarantining at home in some areas say they are short of food and medicine. The ruling party has faced public anger after the deaths of two children whose parents said antivirus controls were hampering efforts to get medical help.

The current protests erupted after a fire broke out on Thursday, killing at least 10 people at an apartment building in the northwest city of Urumqi, where some have been confined in their homes for four months. This prompted a wave of angry questions across the internet about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were being blocked by locked doors or other restrictions.

About 300 protesters gathered in Shanghai late Saturday, most of whom the 25 million people had been confined to their homes for almost two months as of late March.

Chinese police officers block access to a place where protesters had gathered in Shanghai on Sunday, November 27, 2022. Protests against China’s tough “zero-COVID” policy resurfaced in Shanghai and Beijing on Sunday afternoon, continuing a series of demonstrations that have already taken place across the country since a deadly apartment fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi raised questions about such rigid antivirus measures. (AP photo)

On a street named after Urumqi, a group of protesters brought candles, flowers and signs to honor those who died in the blaze. Another group was more active, shouting slogans and singing the national anthem, according to a protester who insisted on anonymity.

That protester and another, who gave only his family name, Zhao, echoed the chants against Xi, who has handed himself a third five-year term as leader of the ruling party and who some expect will seek to stay in power for life . Like others who spoke to the AP, the protesters did not want to be identified for fear of arrest or retribution.

The atmosphere at the protest encouraged people to speak out on topics considered taboo, including the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests, said the protester, who insisted on anonymity.

Some have called for an official apology for the dead in the Urumqi fire in the Xinjiang region. A member of the Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang, who has been the target of a crackdown by the security forces that has included mass arrests, shared his experience of discrimination and police violence.

“Everyone thinks that the Chinese are afraid to come out and protest, that they don’t have courage,” the protester said, adding that it was his first demonstration. “Actually, that’s what I thought in my heart, too. But then when I went there I realized that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.”

Demonstrators hold up blank papers and chant slogans during a protest in Beijing on Sunday, November 27, 2022.  Demonstrators angered by strict antivirus measures called for the resignation of China's powerful leader, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to quell demonstrations on Sunday that pose a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.  (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Demonstrators hold up blank papers and chant slogans during a protest in Beijing on Sunday, November 27, 2022. Demonstrators angered by strict antivirus measures called for the resignation of China’s powerful leader, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to quell demonstrations on Sunday that pose a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The scene turned violent early Sunday. Hundreds of police officers broke up the more active group before coming to the second as they tried to remove people from the main street. The protester said he saw people being taken away and forced into vans by police but could not identify them.

Zhao said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper sprayed. He lost his shoes and went barefoot.

He said protesters shouted slogans, including one that has become a rallying cry: “(We) don’t want PCR (testing), we want freedom.”

Crowds returned to the same spot on Sunday afternoon, again railing against PCR tests. People stood and filmed while the police pushed people.

Officers in surgical masks and yellow safety vests urged the 300 or so spectators to leave but appeared to be trying to avoid a confrontation. There were no signs of shields or other battle gear.

In Beijing, a group of about 200 people gathered in a park east of the capital and held up blank sheets of paper, a symbol of resistance to the ruling party’s pervasive censorship.

“The lockdown policy is so strict,” said one protester, who declined to give only his last name, Li. “You can’t compare it to any other country. We have to find a way out.”

Posts on social media said there were also demonstrations at 50 universities.

About 2,000 students at Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University in Beijing, gathered to demand a relaxation of antivirus controls, according to social media posts. Students shouted “Freedom of Speech!” and sang the Internationale, the socialist anthem.

The protesters left after the university’s Communist Party deputy secretary promised to hold a school-wide discussion.

Videos on social media, saying they were filmed in Nanjing to the east, Guangzhou to the south and at least six other cities, showed protesters wearing white hazmat suits fighting with police or dismantling barricades sealing off neighborhoods. The Associated Press could not verify if and where all of these protests took place.

The human rights organization Amnesty International appealed to Beijing to allow peaceful protests.

“The tragedy of the Urumqi fire has inspired remarkable courage across China,” the group’s regional director Hanna Young said in a statement. “These unprecedented protests show that people are at the end of their tolerance for excessive COVID-19 restrictions.”

Urumqi and a smaller Xinjiang city, Korla, eased some antivirus controls in what appeared to be an attempt to placate the public following Friday’s protests.

Markets and other businesses will reopen in areas at low risk of virus transmission, and bus, train and air services will resume, state media reported. They gave no indication of whether residents in risk areas are allowed to leave their homes.

This version has been updated to correct that the Urumqi fire was on Thursday instead of Friday.

Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

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