Authorities in Shanghai threw up barriers on Monday around a city centre area where hundreds of people protested over the weekend against stringent COVID-19 measures, as anti-lockdown demonstrations flared across China.
From the streets of Shanghai and the capital, Beijing, to dozens of university campuses, protesters made a show of civil disobedience unprecedented since leader Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago, overseeing the quashing of dissent and setting up an extensive high-tech social surveillance system.
“We hope to end the lockdown,” said 28-year-old Shi at a candlelight vigil in Beijing late on Sunday. “We want to live a normal life. We should all bravely express our feelings.”
There was no sign of new protests on Monday in Beijing or Shanghai.
Asked about widespread anger over China’s zero-COVID policy, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters, “What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened.
“We believe that with the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and cooperation of the Chinese people, our fight against COVID-19 will be successful.”
The backlash against COVID curbs is a setback for China’s efforts to eradicate the virus, which is infecting record numbers three years after it emerged in the central city of Wuhan.
The zero-COVID policy has kept China’s official death toll in the thousands, against more than a million in the United States, but has come at the cost of confining many millions to long spells at home, bringing extensive disruption and damage to the world’s second-largest economy.
Abandoning it would mean rolling back a policy championed by Xi. It would also risk overwhelming the health system and lead to widespread illness and deaths in a country with hundreds of millions of elderly and low levels of immunity to COVID, experts say.
The protests roiled global markets on Monday, sending oil prices lower and the dollar higher, with Chinese stocks (.CSI300) and the yuan falling sharply.
State media did not mention the protests, instead urging citizens in editorials to stick to COVID rules. Many analysts say China is unlikely to re-open before March or April, and needs an effective vaccination campaign before that.
“The demonstrations do not imminently threaten the existing political order, but they do mean the current COVID policy mix is no longer politically sustainable,” analysts at Gavekal Dragonomics wrote in a note.
“The question now is what re-opening will look like. The answer is: slow, incremental and messy.”
Late on Sunday, protesters clashed with police in the commercial hub of Shanghai, where its 25 million people were stuck at home in April and May, with security forces taking away a busload of people.
The catalyst for the protests was an apartment fire last week in the western city of Urumqi that killed 10 people. Many speculated that COVID curbs in the city, parts of which had been under lockdown for 100 days, had hindered rescue and escape, which city officials denied.
Crowds in Urumqi took to the street on Friday. Over the weekend, protesters in cities including Wuhan and Lanzhou overturned COVID testing facilities, while students gathered on campuses across China.
Demonstrations have also been held in at least a dozen cities around the world in solidarity.
Discussion of the protests, as well as pictures and footage, sparked a game of cat-and-mouse between social media users and censors.
In Beijing, large crowds of peaceful people gathered past midnight on Sunday on a city ring road, some holding blank pieces of paper in a symbol of protest.
On Sunday in Shanghai, some protesters briefly chanted anti-Xi slogans, almost unheard of in a country where Xi has a level of power unseen since Mao Zedong’s era.
While anger with the COVID rules simmers, some expressed opposition to people taking to the streets.
“These actions will disturb the public order,” resident Adam Yan, 26, said. “It’s best to believe in the government.”