China: Anti-lockdown protests spread amid tough zero-Covid policy

Demonstrations in cities including Shanghai follow fire in capital of Xinjiang region that killed 10 people

Cities across China have seen protests against the country’s zero-Covid policy, as authorities struggle to control outbreaks of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

The demonstrations followed the deaths of 10 people in a fire at a locked-down, high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang.

A candlelight vigil for the fire victims in Shanghai on Saturday turned into a demonstration against the lockdowns that have spread across the country in recent weeks. Videos on social media showed police attempting to break up the demonstration, which saw protesters holding blank sheets of paper as a symbol of censorship.

Smaller protests reported in other cities included a demonstration at Beijing’s Peking University, during which students called for an end to the zero-Covid policy and sang the Internationale, an anthem of international socialism. Videos of a demonstration at Nanjing’s Communication University showed the principal warning students “you will pay for this”.


Local authorities rejected claims that fire crews were unable to save the victims in Urumqi because fire doors were sealed closed as part of the lockdown.

“It has been confirmed by sources from the community and fire crews that none of the doors to the apartments or the building were sealed, and videos circulating online showing they were sealed with wire were filmed elsewhere and put together with footage of the accident with ill intention,” Hamit Memetmin, head of the Tianshan district authority, told Chinese media.

Urumqi has endured some of China’s longest lockdowns, with some of its citizens confined to their homes for 100 days. But after a large demonstration in the city on Friday, the authorities said on Saturday that the city has essentially cleared its Covid cases at a community level and would begin a phased return to normal.

The Chinese authorities on Saturday reaffirmed their commitment to the zero-Covid policy and stressed the need to take “resolute measures” to curb the rise in infections. But they also told local officials to avoid over-zealous application of the rules and to be more considerate in their enforcement.

A 20-point plan published this month eased quarantine rules and called for hospitals to be equipped with more ICU beds and more drugs to be made available for people who become infected with Covid. It also called for a new vaccination campaign targeted at older people, who are more vulnerable to the virus but have been most hesitant about vaccines.

More than 90 per cent of the Chinese population have received two vaccine doses, but the figures are much lower in older age groups. Shanghai said this month that just 46 per cent of its residents over 60 had received a third, booster shot and the proportion of those over 80 who are triple-jabbed is lower still.

After three years, China’s zero-Covid policy has kept deaths and infections far lower than in western countries, but it has come at a great economic and social cost. Protests are not uncommon in China, but they are usually local and focused on a specific issue such as housing, labour disputes or the environment.

This weekend’s demonstrations were unusual in that they happened at the same time in cities across the country and were all focused on the single issue of the zero-Covid policy. The number of people who took part was small but the impact of the protests has been greatly amplified by videos shared on social media.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times