(Bloomberg) -- In my almost 13 years in China, I’ve personally witnessed no more than a handful of protests: In Shanghai’s People’s Square during the Jasmine Revolution movement of 2011 and more recently last year in Shenzhen, where angry depositors demonstrated in front of distressed property developer Evergrande’s headquarters in an attempt to get their money back.
While people do push back, largely on issues of local importance -- the building of a contentious road, say, or concerns about pollution near a village -- never could I have imagined thousands of Shanghai residents, young and old, converging along Wulumuqi Road in the famous French Concession on a Sunday night, demanding an end to Covid Zero, among other grievances.
Or that their voices would be echoed across the country.
When China’s government just over two weeks ago announced measures to ease the toll of Covid containment, many hoped it marked the beginning of the end to three years of lockdowns, closed borders and mass testing. Instead, a recent surge in cases has led to backtracking and a feeling of despair.
China’s Looser Covid Rules Tested With Surging Outbreak
The situation last night on Wulumuqi was chaotic and tense -- the second night of demonstrations sparked by a deadly fire in an apartment block in Urumqi, northwest China (the street is named after the city.) Many in China believe Covid restrictions prevented those inside from being rescued or escaping.
I’ve never seen so many police gathered in one spot in China. Several dozen formed a human barricade on one block to prevent people from walking along the road -- and possibly repeating the scene of the previous day’s protests -- while hundreds more masked and uniformed officers were bussed into its narrow lanes as a show of force.
While it never descended into outright violence, there were definitely moments of tension. Two young men told me that they saw dozens of protesters being hauled away in police vans. I saw one woman in front of a chicken restaurant kicking and screaming as she was dragged along by police. In another instance, two officers held a man aloft by his head and feet as they took him away. A BBC reporter was arrested, handcuffed and beaten while covering the demonstrations, the broadcaster said late Sunday.
What had been a peaceful vigil on Saturday night to commemorate the lives lost in the fire quickly morphed into something greater than one city, with the spread and connectedness of the protests taking China watchers by surprise.
As the crowds last night started to move down the road, they played a game of chicken with the police. Some shouted slogans such as “No More Masks,” and “Release the People,” while others started to sing the Internationale.
Many were armed with their smartphones, sometimes holding them above their heads amid the crush of the crowd. They took pictures and videos both out of curiosity and to document any potential police misconduct.
Large demonstrations in China often invite references to the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre of 1989. There, China’s leaders learned that nascent demonstrations needed to be quashed, early.
But in this case, a heavy-handed response and the detainment of peaceful demonstrators fueled a national rallying cry against Covid Zero and President Xi Jinping, with protests spreading from Nanjing to Wuhan, and all the way to Beijing. They were amplified online as people rushed to evade the censors that guard the most heavily policed internet in the world.
The question now is can this be sustained? And does it present a real threat to the grip of Xi -- who just last month secured a precedent-breaking third term as leader. It will be very hard to ignore or just move beyond what I saw last night.
--With assistance from Martin Ritchie.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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