SHANGHAI — Protesters angered by strict anti-virus measures have called for the resignation of China’s powerful leader, an unprecedented rebuke to authorities in at least eight cities. fought to suppress the demonstrations Sunday that represent a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.
Police using pepper spray drove off protesters in Shanghai calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation and an end to one-party rule, but hours later people rallied again at the same location. The police broke up the demonstration again and a reporter saw the protesters under arrest being taken away in a bus.
The protests, which began on Friday and have spread to cities including the capital Beijing and dozens of university campuses, are the most widespread show of opposition to the ruling party in decades.
In video of the Shanghai protest verified by The Associated Press, chants against Xi, the most powerful leader since at least the 1980s, and the Chinese Communist Party was loud and clear: “Xi Jinping! Reduce! CCP! Reduce!”
Three years after the virus emerged, China is the only major country still trying to stop the transmission of Covid-19. His “zero COVID” strategy has suspended access to neighborhoods for weeks. Some cities conduct 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 dried up. People who are quarantined at home in some areas say they are short of food and medicine. The ruling party faced public anger after the deaths of two children whose parents said virus checks hampered efforts to get medical help.
The current protests erupted after a fire broke out on Thursday and killed at least 10 people in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Urumqi, where some have been holed up in their homes for four months. That sparked a flurry of angry questions online about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other restrictions.
Nearly 300 protesters gathered Saturday night in Shanghai, most of which 25 million people were confined to their homes for almost two months from the end of March.
On a street named after Urumqi, a group of protesters brought candles, flowers and banners to honor those who died in the fire. Another group, according to a protester who insisted on anonymity, was more active, chanting slogans and singing the national anthem.
That protester and another, who gave only his last name, Zhao, confirmed the chants against Xi, who has won a third five-year term as leader of the ruling party and is expected by some to try 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 retaliation.
The atmosphere of the protest encouraged people to speak out on topics considered taboo, including the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, said the protester who insisted on anonymity.
Some called for an official apology for the deaths in the Urumqi fire in the Xinjiang region. A member of the Xinjiang Uyghur ethnic group, who has has been the subject of a security raid which includes mass arrests, shared his experiences of discrimination and police violence.
“Everyone thinks that the Chinese are afraid to go out and protest, that they don’t have the courage,” the protester said, adding that it was his first time demonstrating. “Actually, in my heart, I also thought this way. But then when I went there, I found that the atmosphere was such that everyone was very brave.”
The scene turned violent early Sunday morning. Hundreds of policemen broke up the most active group before they came for the second as they tried to get people off the main street. The protester said he saw police take people away and force them into trucks, but he 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 were chanting slogans, including one that has become a rallying cry: “(We) don’t want PCR (tests), but we want freedom.”
On Sunday afternoon, the crowds returned to the same place and again criticized the PCR tests. People stood up and filmed as the police pushed people away.
Officers wearing surgical masks and yellow safety vests told the crowd of about 300 onlookers to leave, but appeared to be trying to avoid a confrontation. There was no sign of shields or other riot gear.
In Beijing, a group of about 200 people gathered in a park on the capital’s east side and held up blank sheets of paper, a symbol of defiance against widespread censorship by the ruling party.
“The lockdown policy is very strict,” said one protester, who gave only his last name, Li. “It cannot be compared with any other country. We have to find a way out.”
Social media posts said there were also demonstrations at 50 universities.
Around 2,000 students from Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University in Beijing, gathered to demand a relaxation of anti-virus controls, according to social media posts. The students chanted “free 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 in the east, Guangzhou in the south and at least six other cities showed protesters fighting with police in white protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighborhoods. The Associated Press was unable to verify where all of those protests occurred.
The human rights group 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 city in Xinjiang, Korla, relaxed some anti-virus controls in what appeared to be an attempt to calm the public after protests on Friday.
Markets and other businesses will reopen in areas considered low risk of virus transmission and bus, train and airline services will resume, state media reported. They gave no indication of whether residents in higher-risk areas would be allowed to leave their homes.