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(CNN) Protests erupted across China on Saturday, including at universities and in Shanghai where hundreds chanted “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” in an unprecedented show of defiance against the country’s stringent and increasingly costly zero-Covid policy.
A deadly fire at an apartment block in Urumqi, the capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, which killed 10 people and injured nine on Thursday has acted as a catalyst for searing public anger, as videos emerged that seemed to suggest lockdown measures delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.
On dozens of university campuses, students held gatherings or put up posters to grieve the dead from the Xinjiang fire and speak out against zero-Covid. In several cities, residents in locked-down neighborhoods tore down barriers and took to the streets, following mass anti-lockdown protests that swept Urumqi on Friday night.
Such widespread scenes of anger and defiance – some of which stretched well into Sunday – are exceptionally rare in China, where the ruling Communist Party ruthlessly cracks down on all expressions of dissent. But three years into the pandemic, many people have been pushed to the brink by the government’s incessant use of lockdowns, Covid tests and quarantines.
The ratcheting-up of restrictions in recent months, coupled with a series of heartbreaking deaths blamed on an over-zealous policing of the controls, has brought matters to a head.
Protests in Shanghai
The anger led to remarkable acts of defiance in the financial hub of Shanghai, where many of the city’s 25 million residents hold deep rancor against zero-Covid after being subjected to a two-month lockdown in the spring.
Late on Saturday night, hundreds of residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on Urumqi Road, which was named after the city, to mourn the victims of the Xinjiang fire, according to videos widely circulated – and promptly censored – on Chinese social media and a witness account.
Surrounding a makeshift memorial of candles, flowers and placards, the crowd held up blank sheets of white paper – in what is traditionally a symbolic protest against censorship – and chanted, “Need human rights, need freedom.”
In multiple videos seen by CNN, people could be heard shouting demands for China’s leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to “step down.” The crowd also chanted, “Don’t want Covid test, want freedom!” and “Don’t want dictatorship, want democracy!”
Some videos show people singing China’s national anthem and The Internationale, a standard of the socialist movement, while holding banners protesting the country’s exceptionally stringent pandemic measures.
Rows of police officers, who initially looked on from the outside, started to move in to push back and divide the crowd around 3 a.m., sparking tense face-offs with the protesters, according to a witness.
The witness told CNN they saw several people arrested and taken into a police vehicle next to the makeshift memorial after 4.30 a.m. They also saw several protesters being grabbed by the officers from the crowd and taken behind the police line. The protest gradually dispersed before dawn, the witness said.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Shanghai residents returned to the site to continue protesting despite a heavy police presence and road blocks.
Videos showed hundreds of people at an intersection shouting “Release the people!” in a demand for the police to free detained demonstrators.
This time around, police appeared to have adopted a more hardline approach, moving faster and more aggressively to make arrests and disperse the crowds.
In one video, a man holding a bundle of chrysanthemum gave a speech while walking on a pedestrian crossing, as a police officer tried to stop him.
“We need to be braver! Am I breaking the law by holding flowers?” he asked the crowd, who shouted “No!” in reply.
“We Chinese need to be braver!” he said to the applause of the crowd. “So many of us were arrested yesterday. Are they without job or without family? We should not be afraid!”
The man put up a struggle as more than a dozen officers forced him into a police car, as the angry crowd shouted “Release him!” and rushed toward the vehicle.
Other videos show chaotic scenes of police pushing, dragging and beating protesters.
In the evening, after one protester was violently dragged away, hundreds of people shouted “triads” at the police, according to a livestream.
Many of the protests have broken out on university campuses – which are particularly politically sensitive to the Communist Party, given the history of the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, about 100 students gathered around a protest slogan painted on a wall at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing. A student told CNN that when he arrived at the scene at around 1 a.m., security guards were using jackets to cover the protest sign.
“Say no to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to Covid test, yes to food,” read the message written in red paint, echoing the slogan of a protest that took place on a Beijing overpass in October, just days before a key Communist Party meeting at which Xi secured a third term in power.
“Open your eyes and look at the world, dynamic zero-Covid is a lie,” the protest slogan at Peking University read.
The student said security guards later covered the slogan with black paint.
Students later gathered to sing the The Internationale before being dispersed by teachers and security guards.
In the eastern province of Jiangsu, at least dozens of students from Communication University of China, Nanjing gathered on Saturday evening to mourn those who died in the Xinjiang fire. Videos show the students holding up sheets of white paper and mobile phone flashlights.
In one video, a university official could be heard warning the students: “You will pay for what you did today.”
“You too, and so will the country,” a student shouted in reply.
The campus protests continued on Sunday. At Tsinghua University, another top university in Beijing, hundreds of students gathered on a square to protest against zero-Covid and censorship.
Videos and images circulating on social media show students holding up sheets of white paper and shouting: “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”
In one video, a female student could be heard shouting to the cheers of the crowd: “From today onwards, I will no longer perform oral sex for state power!”
In other parts of the country, residents demonstrated against lockdowns of their neighborhoods, following sweeping protests in Urumqi that forced authorities to announce a gradual easing of a lockdown that lasted for more than 100 days.
On Friday night, hundreds of Urumqi residents marched to a government building chanting “end lockdowns,” with some holding the Chinese flag, according to videos circulating on Chinese social media and a Urumqi resident. Smaller protests also erupted at residential communities across the city, which saw residents breaking down lockdown barriers and quarreling with officials.
Throughout the weekend, anti-lockdown protests have rocked neighborhoods in cities from Beijing, Guangzhou and Wuhan to Lanzhou.
According to social media videos, residents at multiple residential communities in Beijing defied lockdown orders. In one compound, residents marched and chanted, “Say no to Covid tests, yes to freedom!”
In the northwestern city of Lanzhou, residents rushed out of locked down compounds on Saturday to roam free in the streets. Videos sent to CNN by a resident show some upturning a Covid workers’ tent and smashing a testing booth.
Earlier this month, residents in the same neighborhood had taken to the streets to demand an answer from authorities over the death of a 3-year-old boy. He had died from gas poisoning after his father was blocked from taking him promptly to a hospital.
That area and other parts of Lanzhou have been locked down since October 1.