Police and demonstrators clashed in Shanghai on Sunday evening as protests against China’s zero-Covid policy continued in cities across China for a third day. But despite fresh protests on Sunday in Beijing, Wuhan and Chengdu, the authorities signalled that the policy of controlling outbreaks through testing, tracing and isolation would remain in place.
A front-page commentary in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, called on the public to persevere with the zero-Covid policy and not to give in to war-weariness, while telling local officials to avoid implementing it too zealously.
“In abiding by the law and strictly abiding by the epidemic prevention requirements, the public is the main body of epidemic prevention and control,” it said. “Resolutely control what should be controlled, resolutely cancel what should be cancelled, and implement what should be implemented.”
The demonstrations against the zero-Covid policy followed the deaths of 10 people in a fire at a locked-down, high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the western province of Xinjiang. 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.
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.
A candlelight vigil for the victims in Shanghai on Saturday turned into a demonstration against the lockdowns that have spread across the country in recent weeks.
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”.
Beijing saw a number of smaller demonstrations on Sunday, with protesters holding sheets of white paper as symbols of censorship. And there were numerous reports of residents refusing to follow lockdown instructions issued by their neighbourhood committees.
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.