Protests over China’s strict COVID-19 controls spread across the country

Mourners crouching beside candles and flowers on a sidewalk memorial
People gather Saturday in Shanghai to mourn 10 people who died in an apartment fire Thursday in China’s western Xinjiang region.
(Chinatopix via Associated Press)

Protests against anti-COVID measures that have confined millions of people to their homes spread to Shanghai and other Chinese cities after complaints that the controls might have worsened the death toll in an apartment fire in the northwest.

Shanghai police used pepper spray against about 300 protesters, according to a witness. The demonstrators gathered Saturday night to mourn the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment fire Thursday in Urumqi, in the Xinjiang region of China’s northwest.

Videos on social media that said they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south and at least five other cities showed protesters tussling with police in white protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighborhoods. Witnesses said a protest occurred in Urumqi, but the Associated Press was unable to confirm details of other videos.


President Xi Jinping’s government faces mounting anger at its “zero-COVID” policy, which has shut down access to areas throughout China in an attempt to isolate every case at a time when other governments are easing controls and trying to live with the virus.

That has kept China’s infection rate lower than the United States and other countries. But the ruling Communist Party faces growing complaints about the economic and human cost as businesses close and families are isolated for weeks with limited access to food and medicine.

Some protesters were shown in videos shouting for Xi to step down and the ruling party to give up power.

China has announced its first new death from COVID-19 in nearly half a year, that of an 87-year-old Beijing man, while imposing strict new measures.

Nov. 20, 2022

Party leaders promised last month to make restrictions less disruptive by easing quarantine and other rules but said they were sticking to “zero-COVID.” Meanwhile, an upsurge in infections that pushed daily cases above 30,000 for the first time has led local authorities to impose restrictions that residents complain exceed what is allowed by the central government.

The fire deaths in Urumqi triggered an outpouring of angry questions online about whether firefighters who needed three hours to extinguish the blaze or victims trying to escape might have been obstructed by locked doors or other controls. Authorities denied that, but the disaster became a focal point for public anger over COVID restrictions, ruling party propaganda and censorship.


In Shanghai, protesters gathered at Middle Urumqi Road at midnight Saturday night with flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace,” according to a participant who would give only his family name, Zhao.

Zhao said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper-sprayed. He said police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes and left barefoot.

It’s unclear how long China’s leaders can maintain their zero-COVID strategy without sacrificing the economic growth that is a bedrock of their rule.

May 6, 2022

According to Zhao, protesters yelled slogans including “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down,” “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China,” “Do not want PCR [tests], want freedom” and “Press freedom.”

About 100 police officers stood in lines to prevent protesters from gathering or leaving, Zhao said. He said buses with more officers arrived later.

Another protester, who gave only his family name, Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of demonstrators, but police stood in the road and let them pass on the sidewalk.

Internet users posted videos and accounts on Chinese and foreign social media showing protests in Shanghai, Nanjing, the southwestern cities of Chengdu and Chongqing and the Xinjiang region cities of Urumqi and Korla.

Incoming travelers will spend less time in quarantine — five days instead of seven — under new changes to China’s sweeping coronavirus controls.

Nov. 11, 2022

A video that said it was shot in Urumqi showed protesters chanting, “Remove the Communist Party! Remove Xi Jinping!”

Protests in Xinjiang are especially risky following a security crackdown against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities that has included mass detentions.

Most protesters in the videos were members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group. A Uyghur woman in Urumqi said Uyghurs were too scared to take to the streets.

“Han Chinese people know they will not be punished if they speak against the lockdown,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retaliation. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare say such things, we will be taken to prison or to the camps.”

In towns and villages by the desert in China’s Xinjiang region, more than 10,000 Uyghurs have vanished, sentenced to years in prison on vague charges.

May 16, 2022

Posts on Chinese social media were quickly deleted, which Beijing often does to suppress criticism it worries might serve as a rallying point for opposition to one-party rule.

People in some parts of Xinjiang have been confined to their homes since early August. Some complain they lack access to food and medicine and have posted appeals for help online.

In a possible attempt to placate the public, authorities Saturday announced that they had achieved “societal zero-COVID” and that restrictions in Urumqi and Korla would be relaxed. The government said taxi, railway, bus and other public services that had been suspended for weeks would resume. State-owned China Southern Airlines announced it would resume flights from Urumqi to four Chinese cities starting Monday.

Social media users greeted news that COVID was under control with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can achieve this speed,” wrote one user on the Sina Weibo social media service.

Anger boiled over earlier after Urumqi city officials appeared to blame the deaths from Thursday night’s fire on the apartment tower’s residents.

“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s fire department, said at a news conference.

Police announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman on charges of spreading “untrue information” about the death toll online.

Late Friday, people in Urumqi marched largely peacefully in puffy winter jackets on a cold night.

China’s largest city, Shanghai, has started administering an aerosol COVID-19 vaccine that recipients suck in through their mouths, state media said.

Oct. 26, 2022

Videos of protests featured people holding the Chinese flag and shouting, “Open up, open up!” Some shouted and pushed against rows of men in white protective suits.

Two Urumqi residents who declined to be named for fear of retribution said large-scale protests occurred Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.

The AP pinpointed the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police in face masks and hospital gowns faced off against shouting protesters. In another, one protester spoke to a crowd about their demands. It was unclear how widespread the protests were.

Xi has defended his government’s zero-tolerance strategy as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system compared with the U.S. and other Western countries, which politicized the use of face masks and had difficulties enacting widespread lockdowns.

The world faces the prospect of more tension with China over trade, security and human rights after Xi Jinping secured a third term as leader.

Oct. 24, 2022

But support for the zero-tolerance policy has cratered in recent months, as tragedies sparked public anger.

Last week, the government of the central city of Zhengzhou apologized for the death of a 4-month-old girl who was in quarantine. Her father said his efforts to take her to a hospital were delayed after ambulance workers balked at helping them because he tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Uyghur woman in Urumqi said she had been unable to leave her apartment since Aug. 8, and was not even allowed to open her window. On Friday, she and her neighbors defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest.

“No more lockdowns! No more lockdowns!” they screamed, according to the woman.