Chinese Protests Spread Over Government’s Covid Restrictions

Protests are erupting in several major cities in China over President

Xi Jinping’s

zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19, an unusual show of defiance in the country as the economic and social costs from snap lockdowns and other strict restrictions escalate.

The protests followed demonstrations on Friday in Urumqi, the capital of the remote region of Xinjiang, where a deadly fire enraged city residents who had struggled with lockdowns of more than 100 days. Residents flooded social media with comments suggesting the government’s Covid restrictions contributed to a delay in putting out the fire, in which officials said 10 people died.

On Saturday, videos circulating on social media showed crowds gathering on a street in central Shanghai calling for a lifting of the lockdowns. The videos were verified by Storyful, a social-media research company owned by

News Corp

News Corp,

parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

What’s News

Catch up on the headlines, understand the news and make better decisions, free in your inbox every day.

One clip showed protesters standing around a street sign that says Wulumuqi Middle Road, named after Urumqi, suggesting the protests were inspired by protests in that city on Friday. Using expletives and call-and-response chanting, they were denouncing Mr. Xi’s Covid-control strategy. Another clip from the scene showed demonstrators standing across from lines of police.

The clip showed one man chanting, “The Communist Party.”

Others responded, “Step down.”

Xi Jinping,

” the one man shouted.

“Step down,” others responded.

Other videos and photographs circulating online showed students demonstrating at the Communication University of China in the eastern city of Nanjing, with one clip showing some chanting, “Long live the people.”

The Journal spoke to people in both Shanghai and Nanjing, who confirmed that the clips showed events taking place in those cities on Saturday.

In some parts of Beijing, the capital city where security measures are among the tightest in the country, residents were marching out of closed-off compounds earlier Saturday, with some demanding to ease what they called excessive Covid restrictions, according to videos on social media and locals who participated in the actions.

On Chinese social-media, users raced against censors to spread images and news of the protests, along with expressions of solidarity. “Long live the people, may the dead rest in peace,” read one message that spread widely.

A person lights a candle during a vigil held in Shanghai for the victims of the Urumqi fire, in this picture from a social media video.



Earlier in the week, workers at the world’s biggest


iPhone assembly plant clashed with police after protests erupted at the factory in central China, where the sprawling facility employing more than 200,000 people has been under strict Covid-19 controls for weeks.

Open displays of anger are rare in China, where crackdowns on dissent have intensified over the past decade under Mr. Xi’s leadership. Having protests over the same issue break out in multiple Chinese cities is almost unheard of, outside of nationalist outpourings, such as anti-Japanese protests. Ever since the student democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the ruling party has worked to prevent public protests from happening.

The protests highlight the rising toll on Chinese society from a Covid strategy built around mass testing and confinement to quash even minor outbreaks—an approach that has become increasingly unsustainable.

The strategy saved lives and proved effective earlier in the pandemic, which started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early 2020. It has come to underpin Mr. Xi’s view that China has managed the virus better than the West.

However, more contagious strains of Covid-19 have since made it all but impossible to completely clear out the virus. Meanwhile, frequent lockdowns have kept businesses closed and pushed up youth unemployment, with China now facing its worst slowdown in decades.

In addition, there have been many reported cases of people who have died of other diseases they couldn’t get treated for because of lockdowns.

Wary of the high stakes, China’s top leadership earlier this month unveiled plans to “optimize and adjust” the strict zero-Covid policy to rescue the economy. However, with keeping Covid under control remaining a top political priority, local officials across the country doubled down on imposing restrictions when cases rose along with the winter season.

“A lot of people are reaching the breaking point,” said

Yanzhong Huang,

a public-health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has been closely monitoring the Covid situation in China.

Mr. Huang and several other analysts compared the waves of Covid-related protests to the public sentiment around the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

“If mishandled by the government, the highly volatile situation could quickly evolve into the most severe political crisis since Tiananmen,” said Mr. Huang.

Video clips from Shanghai showed police dragging some protesters away while others were chanting, “Let go!”

At the Communication University in Nanjing, a male student said to a cheering crowd: “I speak for my own hometown, speak for those who lost family members in the [Urumqi] fire, and speak for all the compatriots who died across the country.”

A person answering the phone at the Shanghai municipal government said no one was available to answer questions on the weekend. Calls to the Beijing municipal government and to the Communication University in Nanjing rang unanswered.

Urumqi officials said after the fire last week that rescuers had to remove some barriers, but attributed a delay in putting out the fire to too many cars parked in the compound. On Saturday, Urumqi officials said normal activities would gradually resume in areas of the city considered at low risk for Covid.

Write to Lingling Wei at

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8