The Chinese ruling party is facing a major test as protests break out across the country over ongoing strict Covid restrictions in the wake of a deadly fire in the country's west which saw residents perish in a fire inside a building it's believed they were unable to escape due to the government measures.
The tragedy on Thursday has sparked unprecedented social unrest with discontent over rolling lockdowns erupting into angry protest in cities across China. Videos posted to social media show the protests threatening to enter their fourth day on Monday morning in a wave of civil disobedience that is unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.
Hundreds of demonstrators and police clashed in Shanghai on Sunday night with protesters shouting for freedom.
"I’m here because I love my country, but I don’t love my government ... I want to be able to go out freely, but I can’t. Our Covid-19 policy is a game and is not based on science or reality," a protester named Shaun Xiao told Reuters.
Protesters also took to the streets in the cities of Wuhan and Chengdu on Sunday, while students on numerous university campuses around China gathered to demonstrate over the weekend.
In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totaling at least 1,000 people were gathered along the Chinese capital's 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.
"We don’t want masks, we want freedom. We don’t want Covid tests, we want freedom," one of the groups chanted earlier.
David Moser, a linguistics scholar at Beijing Capital Normal University, said he's never seen anything like it during his 30 years living in the country.
"I've never seen such a brazenly open and sustained expression of rage against the PRC govt. WeChat is exploding with protest videos and furious vitriol, and civil disobedience is becoming rampant," he tweeted Sunday. "This is a serious test of CCP [Chinese Communist Party] governance."
Protests triggered by deadly fire
A fire on Thursday at a residential high-rise building in the city of Urumqi, capital of the notorious Xinjiang region, triggered protests after videos of the incident posted on social media led to accusations that lockdowns led to 10 people dying in the blaze.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny Covid measures had hampered escape and rescue efforts. Many of Urumqi's 4 million residents have been under some of the country's longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.
On Saturday, a vigil in Shanghai for victims of the apartment fire turned into a protest against Covid curbs, with the crowd chanting calls for lockdowns to be lifted.
"Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping", one large group chanted.
"We just want our basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far," a 26-year-old protester in Shanghai told Reuters on Sunday.
"The people here aren’t violent, but the police are arresting them for no reason. They tried to grab me but the people all around me grabbed my arms so hard and pulled me back so I could escape."
China has 'no way out'
While the rest of the world has moved on, China has steadfastly held to its Covid-zero approach – but that is now unravelling. The country's case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday, prompting yet more lockdowns in cities across the country.
Dr Scott Gottlieb from the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC summed up the problem facing the country's leadership.
"China may have left itself no way out," he tweeted Sunday.
"If ruling party relaxes their controls, they’ll face an unprecedented and deadly wave of virus in a population with little pre-existing immunity; if they don’t relax their controls, they’ll face escalating protests."
Beijing has defended the policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it.
A previous comparison to Taiwan showed China's mainland could see somewhere near three quarters of a million deaths in the first six months after opening up.
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