November 28, 2022 | 12:35 p.m
SHANGHAI — China’s censors worked Monday to erase signs of rare, social media-driven protests that flared up in major cities over the weekend demanding political liberties and an end to Covid lockdowns.
On Sunday, people in several major cities across China took to the streets to demand an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms, in a wave of nationwide protests not seen since the crackdown on pro-democracy rallies in 1989.
A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, has become a catalyst for public anger, with many blaming Covid lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts.
But they have also included prominent calls for more political freedoms – some even calling for the resignation of China’s President Xi Jinping, who was recently reappointed to an unprecedented third term as the country’s leader.
Large crowds gathered in the capital Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday, where police clashed with protesters as they tried to prevent groups from gathering on Wulumuqi Street, named after the Mandarin for Urumqi.
Crowds gathered overnight – some of them chanting ‘Xi Jinping, resign! CCP Resign!” – were broken up on Sunday morning.
But in the afternoon, hundreds gathered in the same area with blank sheets of paper and flowers to hold what appeared to be a silent protest, an eyewitness told AFP.
In the capital, at least 400 people gathered by a river bank for several hours, some shouting, “We are all Xinjiang people! Go Chinese!”
AFP reporters at the scene described how the crowd sang the national anthem and listened to speeches while a line of police cars waited on the other side of the canal.
An AFP journalist saw a significant police presence with blue fences lining the sidewalks at the site of the protests in Shanghai Monday morning to prevent further gatherings.
State censors appeared to have purged Chinese social media of all news of the rallies, with the search terms “Liangma River”, “Urumqi Road” — protest locations in Beijing and Shanghai — having purged all references to the rallies on a Twitter-like Weibo platform .
Videos, including those showing students chanting in protest and rallies in other cities, had also disappeared from WeChat, replaced with notes that the content had been reported as “non-compliant or sensitive content”.
Weibo searches for the hashtag #A4 — a reference to the blank notes held up at rallies as a symbolic protest against censorship — also appeared to have been rigged, returning only a handful of posts from the past day.
China’s tight controls on information and continued travel restrictions tied to the zero-Covid policy make checking the number of protesters across the vast country a challenge.
But such widespread rallies are exceptionally rare as the authorities crack down on any opposition to the central government.
Protests also took place in Wuhan, the central city where COVID-19 first emerged, on Sunday, while there were reports of demonstrations in Guangzhou, Chengdu and Hong Kong.
They spread via social media and were fueled by frustration at the central government’s zero-Covid policy, with authorities imposing immediate lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns for just a handful of cases.
State newspaper People’s Daily ran an op-ed Monday morning warning of “paralysis” and “battle fatigue” in the fight against COVID – but fell far short of calling for an end to hardline politics.
“People have now reached a boiling point because there was no clear direction to end the zero-COVID policy,” Alfred Wu Muluan, a Chinese policy expert at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
“The party underestimated the anger of the population.”
Investors were spooked by protests over the weekend as Asian stocks opened sharply lower on Monday morning.
China on Monday reported 40,052 domestic COVID-19 cases, a record high but tiny compared to case numbers in the west at the height of the pandemic.