People protesting China’s severe COVID lockdowns have returned to the streets of Shanghai despite being forcibly removed by police using pepper spray just hours earlier.
In what Amnesty International described as a move of ‘extraordinary courage’, people who opposed the continued confinement of millions – for weeks at a time – have once again gathered in the same spot.
One said Beijing’s COVID policy was a “game,” while another called for “basic human rights.”
Their anger was ignited by a fire in Urumqi city on Thursday which killed at least 10 people.
There are fears that residents have been unable to flee a tower block engulfed in flames due to President Xi Jinping’s continued zero COVID policy.
A candlelight vigil on Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi, has led to demonstrations.
Protesters held up blank sheets of paper as an expression of their anger, while some called on the Communist Party to step down.
The protests have spread to about 50 universities, according to the AP news agency.
Many Chinese cities have been under strict lockdown for months: many of Urumqi’s four million residents, for example, have not been able to leave their homes for any reason since August.
Officials deny that the deaths in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, were caused by the lockdown policy.
And a fire brigade spokesman inspired further anger after appearing to blame residents for not being able to ‘save’ themselves.
But the protesters were fierce. “We just want our basic human rights,” said one in Shanghai who he declined to be identified.
“We can’t leave our homes without taking a test. It was the Xinjiang incident that pushed people too far.”
Another protester, Shaun Xiao, said China’s COVID policy is “a game and not based on science or reality”.
In Beijing, a group chanted: “We don’t want masks, we want freedom.”
Amnesty International UK said: “The tragedy of the Urumqi fire has inspired considerable courage across China.
“It is virtually impossible for people in China to protest peacefully without facing harassment and prosecution.
“These unprecedented protests show that people are at their tolerance end for the excessive COVID-19 restrictions.”
Analysis: Because this is a major challenge for the Communist Party government
In Shanghai, in videos shared on social media and verified by Sky News, protesters were seen chanting slogans including “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down”, “Unblock Xinjiang, unblock China”, “I don’t want PCR (test), they want freedom” and “freedom of the press”.
A protester who gave only his last name, Zhao, told the Associated Press that one of his friends was beaten by police and two friends 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 in the process and left the protest barefoot.
Beijing “effectively under lockdown”
The frustration of the blockade is growing in the epicenter of China
Reuters reported it saw a video showing Beijing residents in an unidentifiable part of the city marching around an open parking lot on Saturday chanting “end the blockade”.
Sean Li, a Beijing resident, told Reuters that a planned lockdown for his compound was canceled on Friday after residents noticed workers putting up barriers at their gates.
Residents had complained to their local boss and persuaded him to cancel the plans.
Mr. Li said, “The Urumqi fire shocked everyone in the country.
“That tragedy could have happened to any of us.”
Who are the Uyghurs and why are they oppressed by China?
There were protests in Urumqi on Friday night as a vigil for fire victims turned into a demonstration against the blockade.
People chanted “open up, open up” in videos that were shared on social media before being deleted by censors on Saturday.
But protesters made some concessions, with parts of the city deemed low-risk getting a little more freedom from restrictions over the weekend.
Click to subscribe to Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts
Protests against government policy are rare in China, but even more unusual in Xinjiang.
The province, home to China’s persecuted Uyghur minority, has experienced some of the longest lockdown restrictions in the country, with reports of people going hungry earlier in the year.
China’s zero-COVID policy was initially well received by citizens, who saw it as minimizing deaths while other countries were battling huge losses.
But support has waned in recent months as the Chinese tire of restrictions that go far beyond what was seen during the UK’s lockdown, for example.
China is the only major country still battling the COVID-19 pandemic with mass testing and strict lockdowns.