China curbs rare nationwide protests

Outpouring of anger: A protester shouting during a protest against a fire and Covid-19 restrictions in Beijing. — AFP

Shanghai: China’s security forces detained people yesterday at the scene of a rare demonstration as authorities worked to extinguish protests that flared across the country calling for political freedoms and an end to Covid-19 lockdowns.

AFP witnessed police leading two people away from a site in Shanghai where demonstrators gathered over the weekend, while China’s censors worked to scrub signs of the social media-driven rallies.

People took to the streets in major cities and gathered at university campuses across China on Sunday to call for an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms, in a wave of protests not seen since pro-democracy rallies in 1989 were crushed.

A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, was the catalyst for the public anger, with many blaming Covid lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts.

But protesters also called for greater political freedoms – with some even demanding the resignation of China’s President Xi Jinping, recently reappointed to a historic third term as the country’s leader.

Large crowds gathered on Sunday in the capital Beijing and the economic hub of Shanghai, where police clashed with protesters as they tried to stop groups from converging at Wulumuqi street, named after the Mandarin for Urumqi.

Hundreds of people rallied in the same area with blank sheets of paper and flowers to hold what appeared to be a silent protest on Sunday afternoon.

The BBC said one of its journalists had been arrested and beaten by police while covering the Shanghai protests.

In the capital, at least 400 people gathered on the banks of a river for several hours, with some shouting: “We are all Xinjiang people! Go Chinese people!”

AFP journalists at the tense scene of the Shanghai protests yesterday saw a substantial police presence, with blue fences in place along the pavements to stop further gatherings.

Two people were then detained by police at the site, an AFP journalist saw, with law enforcement preventing passers-by from taking photos or video of the area.

Shanghai police had not responded to repeated enquiries about how many people had been detained.

State censors appeared to have largely cleaned Chinese social media of any news about the rallies by yesterday.

The search terms “Liangma River”, “Urumqi Road” – sites of protests in Beijing and Shanghai – had been scrubbed of any references to the rallies on the Twitter-like Weibo platform.

“People have now reached a boiling point because there has been no clear direction or path to end the zero-Covid policy,” Alfred Wu Muluan, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore, said.

“The party has underestimated the people’s anger.” — AFP

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