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Mass protests against China’s COVID lockdowns

Coronavirus, Wuhan Image ID: 108296823 (L) Image credit: keitma / 123rf
The epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak was Wuhan, China. Image credit: keitma / 123rf

Protests simmered in Shanghai early on Sunday, as residents in several Chinese cities, many of them angered by a deadly fire in the country’s far west, pushed back against heavy COVID-19 curbs nearly three years into the pandemic.

A fire on Thursday that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, has sparked widespread public anger as many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down, which city officials denied.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, residents gathered on Saturday night at the city’s Wulumuqi Road – which borrows its name from Urumqi – for a vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

“Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!” the crowds in Shanghai shouted, according to a video circulated on social media.

At one point a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping, free Urumqi!”, according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest against the Chinese leadership.

A large group of police looked on and sometimes tried to break up the crowd.

China’s new COVID-19 cases hit a record high, testing the government’s push to contain the virus with more-targeted virus controls and avoid damaging the economy. Almost 30,000 locally transmitted infections were recorded last Wednesday, surpassing the previous record in April, when Shanghai’s two-month lockdown severely hurt China’s economy and snarled global supply chains. Economists say the risk that China’s “zero-COVID” policy will again force officials to impose sweeping measures is one of the main threats to world growth. China’s leaders this month told local officials to be more precise and targeted in implementing pandemic controls, but at the same time said there would be no change to the zero-COVID stance.

Beijing’s battle to contain the virus—including sharp restrictions on everyday life and commerce in cities from the major port city of Tianjin in the north to Guangzhou in the south—comes as economies elsewhere lose speed as central banks raise interest rates to beat back inflation. The heavy-handed and widely applied steps send a strong signal that the country and its leaders aren’t ready for a sustained reopening almost three years after the start of the pandemic and long after other major economies have dismantled almost all COVID controls.

Zhengzhou, home to Apple Inc.’s largest iPhone manufacturing site, will be largely locked down for five days as officials in the Chinese city resort to tighter curbs to quell a swelling COVID-19 outbreak. Mobility controls — a euphemism for lockdown — will be imposed in the main urban areas of Zhengzhou from Friday through Nov. 29 because of rising virus cases, Zhengzhou’s pandemic task force said in a statement late Wednesday. The city reported 996 infections on Wednesday, up from 813 a day earlier. The new restrictions were announced after hundreds of workers at the plant, known as ‘iPhone City’ for its scale, streamed out of dormitories earlier in the day.

China is battling a surge in infections that has prompted lockdowns and other restrictions in cities across the country as Beijing adheres to a zero-COVID policy even as much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Videos from Shanghai widely shared on Chinese social media showed crowds facing dozens of police and calling out chants including: “Serve the people”, “We don’t want health codes” and “We want freedom”.

Shanghai’s 25 million people were put under lockdown for two months earlier this year, an ordeal that provoked anger and protest.

Chinese authorities have since then sought to be more targeted in their COVID curbs, but that effort has been challenged by a surge in infections as China faces its first winter with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

In Beijing, 2,700 km (1,700 miles) away, some residents under lockdown staged small protests or confronted local officials on Saturday over movement restrictions, with some successfully pressuring them into lifting the curbs ahead of a schedule.

A video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an unidentifiable part of the capital marching around an open-air carpark on Saturday, shouting “End the lockdown!”

The Beijing government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

On Saturday, Urumqi authorities said they would lift COVID-19 restrictions in phases, a rare climbdown after more than three months of tight lockdowns in many parts of the city.

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