Chinese cities under heavy policing

On alert: Policemen (in yellow) standing guard on Wulumuqi road, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, in Shanghai. — AFP

SHANGHAI: China’s major cities of Beijing and Shanghai were blanketed with security in the wake of nationwide rallies calling for political freedoms and an end to Covid lockdowns.

The country’s leadership faced a weekend of protests not seen in decades, as anger over unrelenting lockdowns fuels deep-rooted frustration with the country’s political system as a whole.

A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, was the catalyst for the wave of outrage, with protesters taking to the streets of cities around the country.

The demonstrators said Covid restrictions were to blame for hampering rescue efforts – claims the government has denied as it accused “forces with ulterior motives” of linking the fire deaths to the strict Covid controls.

Anger over lockdowns has widened to calls for political change, with protesters holding up blank sheets of paper to symbolise the censorship the world’s most populous country is subjected to.

More protests were planned for Monday night but did not materialise, with AFP journalists in Beijing and Shanghai noting a heavy police presence of hundreds of vehicles and officers on the streets.

People who had attended weekend rallies said they had received phone calls from law enforcement officers demanding information about their movements.

In Shanghai, near a site where weekend protests saw bold calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping, bar staff said they had been ordered to close at 10pm local time for “disease control”.

Small clusters of officers were deployed to metro exits near the protest site. Throughout Monday, AFP journalists saw officers detaining four people, later releasing one, with a reporter counting 12 police cars within 100m along Wulumuqi street in Shanghai, the focal point of Sunday’s rally.

Despite the overwhelming police deployment, the frustration with zero-Covid remained palpable.

“The (zero-Covid) policies now –they’re just too strict. They kill more people than Covid,” said one 17-year-old passerby who did not want to be named.

Elsewhere, rallies did go ahead.

In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where mass democracy protests erupted in 2019, dozens gathered at the Chinese University to mourn the victims of the Urumqi fire.

“Don’t look away. Don’t forget,” protesters shouted.

In Hangzhou, there was strict security and sporadic protests in the city’s downtown, with one attendee saying that 10 people were detained.

“The atmosphere was disorderly. There were few people and we were separated. There were lots of police, it was chaos,” she said. — AFP

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