SHANGHAI (AA) – In Shanghai, mourners lit candles and laid flowers. Someone scribbled “Urumqi, 11.24, Rest in Peace” in red on the cardboard. Deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, western China This sparked anger over the country’s perception that strict COVID-19 measures played a role in the disaster.
What started as a minor seizure by less than a dozen people last weekend has grown and hundreds of hours later a noisy crowd. One woman defiantly shouted at Chinese leader Xi Jinping to resign, encouraging others. Then, before dawn, the police broke in and dispersed the meeting and prevented any more from happening.
The November 26 protest in Shanghai was not the first or the largest. However, the bold calls for change in the Chinese leadership were worthy of attention – the most overt challenge to the ruling Communist Party in decades.
Nationalist bloggers immediately blamed foreign “black hands” and the government promised to put pressure on “enemy forces”. However, according to 11 participants and eyewitnesses interviewed by the Associated Press, the protest arose spontaneously. This was the first political demonstration for nearly all of them, and they spoke on the condition that their identities not be fully disclosed for fear of police harassment.
Three smashing years of isolation under China’s “zero COVID” policy and Xi’s erasure of civil liberties have made the country ripe for such an outburst in a way no one expected, whether by the authorities, the police or the protesters themselves.
On the evening of Saturday, November 1st. 26 took place in the French Concession, Shanghai’s trendy district filled with boutique Art Deco cafes, vintage shops, and historic Tudor mansions. According to two friends of the first participants, local artists and musicians were among the first to join.
The name of a crowded boulevard comes from Urumqi, the city in the extreme northwest Xinjiang region, which occurred on November 19. At least 10 people died in 24 fires. Many criticized the government’s COVID-19 restrictions for preventing victims from escaping, authorities denied that accusation.
Anger flared up on Chinese social media soon after. Millions of online posts accused virus control roadblocks of delaying rescuers, and Urumqi residents took to the streets to protest their months-long isolation.
Resistance to politics had been building for weeks. in the center of Henan province, workers went out of an iPhone factory when they were told they would be locked as part of virus checks. In cosmopolitan GuangzhouNeighborhood residents argued with the police, who enforced the curfew.
Earlier that day, from Chengdu in the south to Harbin in the north, university students who had been locked up on campuses for months lit candles, sprayed graffiti and took selfies while holding placards mourning the dead in Urumqi.
Road signs on Shanghai’s Urumqi Central Road were surrounded by candles, signs and flowers. According to the participants’ friends, dozens had gathered by 22:30.
According to a friend of one of the early attendees, customers rushed out of a nearby bar after the World Cup match between South Korea and Uruguay. Many people joined the vigil by taking pictures and posting them online.
At 11:21 p.m., a popular Twitter account following the opposition in China posted footage of the vigils, attracting the attention of many who were scrolling through painful articles about the Urumqi fire.
Participants said it was no coincidence that the fire reverberated in Shanghai. The closure of many of the city’s apartment buildings during the April and May curfews sparked fire safety fears and angered many.
“People couldn’t just empathize with the people in Urumqi, they realized it could happen themselves,” said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago.
One person who identified himself only as the French name Zoel said he joined to pay his respects after seeing a photo on the Chinese messaging app WeChat. When she got there after midnight, she encountered a sizable crowd and police. People gathered at two spots, laying flowers and lighting candles.
“It was so peaceful,” Zoel said.
Police soon surrounded the candles, preventing anyone from approaching.
According to a video sent to the AP, on one screen, a student had an argument with an officer.
“You are a civil servant. You have a future, but do we have? The student shouted. Then his face crumpled and his voice turned into a whimper: “Do we have a future? up to us?”
Someone handed out blank papers for people to hold, a symbol of all-encompassing censorship under the Xi administration.
The mood has changed. The newcomers shouted to the silent crowd: “Why are you wearing a mask? Take off your mask!”
“They were so extreme,” Zoel said. Until then, he said, it was mostly friendly chat and greetings or World Cup discussions.
Then the slogans were shouted: “Freedom of expression!” “Long live the people!” and “Sorry!”
Shortly after 2 am, a female voice was heard: “Xi Jinping, get down!”
Heads turned in shock.
His courage shattered perhaps the greatest political taboo in China. Xi, the country’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, purged the press, tightened censorship and installed a digital surveillance apparatus to maintain control.
One protester, who identified himself only as Marco, described the remark as “unimaginable”. The mention of Xi’s name arouses fear, because the leader is “an untouchable taboo in many people’s hearts.”
Then another voice was heard – this time a male voice, loud and clear. A hundred or more roared in response.
“When one person opens their mouth, everyone else dares to speak,” said one protester, who initially remained silent. After hearing people say, “Xi Jinping, resign,” he felt braver and took things even further by cursing him. Others hurled insults.
Many blamed Xi, who personally led the pandemic policies, for China’s harsh approach.
But fearing a crackdown, some of the crowd left, including Marco. “There were more and more police,” he said. “I was a coward.”
Shortly after 3 p.m., the police took action.
According to the two protesters, the cleanup operation began when officers in black came and went between the two guard posts, splitting the crowd in two.
Demonstrators said police lined up, locked dozens of guns, and marched towards the protesters to steer them away from the Urumqi road.
Some officers attacked, captured persons and sent others to flee. The video AP watched shows police pushing and fighting protesters. Two eyewitnesses said that the police also used pepper spray.
Until 7 a.m. on Sunday, November 7th. According to one who remained until the end, all protesters were removed.
But a few hours later, hundreds of people returned. Many were newcomers excited by the images from the night before.
People wandering on the Urumqi Central Road were attacked by the police and detained. Yet people remained.
Around 3 pm, a man with a bouquet asked the attendant, “I’m holding flowers, is that a crime?” she asked. He shouted: “We Chinese must be a little braver!”
According to eyewitnesses and footage of the incident, he was caught by the police and put in a car.
The police cordoned off the guard post. Tensions between officers and protesters grew.
Some chanted slogans against freedom or virus restrictions. Others were more sarcastic, “Serve the people!” – to one protester – mocking a worn-out Communist slogan.
“Do you understand the symbolism of what you hold in your hand?” An officer told a girl that he was holding up a piece of paper. “Do not be used or provoked by others!”
The police, dressed in neon green vests, were hastily advancing people, sometimes killing people. Officers entered the restaurants and ordered diners to leave mid-dinner.
“Police violence!” protesters shouted. Others cursed the officers as “dogs”.
Around 6 pm, curious crowds and protesters numbered in the thousands.
Waves of detention began. Witnesses said officers arrested random people, beating or kicking some of them they caught. The crowd was so dense that some feared the stampede.
The detainees were put on the bus. As the vehicle drove away, an AP reporter saw the crowd cheering on the detainees: “Don’t surrender to these thugs!”
The crowd dwindled as dusk fell.
Around 10:30 pm on Sunday, about 30 police in black attacked people at the Urumqi Central Road junction, sending them to flee. An AP reporter and others were stopped by the police using their hands and repeatedly hit in the head.
The journalist and four others were put in a police van and taken to a police station in northern Shanghai. When a detained woman said she was just walking down the road, an officer told her, “Shut up.”
At the police station, the journalist saw 16 more detainees, most of them in their 20s. Some were injured, including a man in bloody jeans and a wound over his eye.
Police confiscated phones and asked for passwords. The detainees were taken to interrogation rooms, locked in metal chairs and interrogated one by one.
When police learned of the journalist’s identity, he was released two hours later without being questioned and pressured for his phone’s password.
In a separate incident, police also beat and detained a BBC reporter. Shanghai police did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
One detainee, who introduced himself to a reporter only by his Japanese name Kasugawa, said he was detained for more than 24 hours after an officer saw him take a photo.
Fingerprinted, photographed and iris scanned, and he was allowed to sign printouts of phone calls after handing over his password. After his release, the police returned his phone and warned him not to protest again.
Kasugawa has since stayed at home in fear of the police. But he said the protests gave him hope.
“I had no expectations for this country,” he said. “Every time I think of that day, I really just want to cry.”
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.
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