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Thousands of people took to the streets of major Chinese cities over the weekend to protest the government’s strict and costly “zero-Covid” policy, a very rare display of anger in China where authorities are swift in cracking down on dissent, CNN reported.
Demonstrations initially began Friday in the western province of Xinjiang following an apartment fire in the provincial capital that killed at least 10 people. The province has imposed tough anti-Covid-19 rules and videos of the incident in Urumqi showed that lockdown measures had delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.
Following the fire, many Urumqi citizens marched in front of a government building to call for an end to the lockdown. Officials said Saturday they would lift the lockdown in stages but did not provide a clear timeline.
But the authorities’ move failed to quell public anger, which later spread into other Chinese cities, including the capital Beijing and the country’s financial center, Shanghai.
Clashes between protesters and authorities were reported in some parts of the country, but other demonstrations appear to have dispersed peacefully.
The demonstrations reflect the growing toll on Chinese society of a Covid-19 strategy based on mass testing and snap lockdowns to contain even minor outbreaks, the Wall Street Journal wrote. While the strategy initially helped in the early days of the pandemic, it has been nearly impossible to completely clear the virus as new strains emerge.
The restrictive policy also prompted China’s top leadership earlier this month to “optimize and adjust” the strategy in an effort to rescue the economy.
While a majority of people lamented the anti-coronavirus measures, others chanted slogans for more human rights and political freedoms in China. Some people also called for President Xi Jinping to step down.
Protests on such a scale – including public dissent towards the central government – are of profound significance in China, where the ruling Communist Party controls all aspects of life and authorities closely monitor their citizens through a massive, high-tech surveillance system.
Political analysts compared the waves of Covid-related protests to the public sentiment around the pro-democracy demonstrations that culminated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“If mishandled by the government, the highly volatile situation could quickly evolve into the most severe political crisis since Tiananmen,” Yanzhong Huang, a public-health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Journal.