On Sunday morning, Mick woke up to his Twitter feed flooded with videos showing protesters and police on the streets of Shanghai, China’s most populous city.
The previous night, people had gathered and left flowers at the street sign for Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi, the capital of the northwest region of Xinjiang, where 10 people had died in an apartment building fire the week previous.
The deaths have been blamed on Covid lockdown policies that may have slowed down first responders, an allegation local authorities have denied.
Protests have exploded across the country since, in places like Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Urumqi, and Wuhan, in a show of public dissent towards strict Covid policies.
Mick, who does not want to use his full name due to security concerns, is originally from Sligo and has lived in Shanghai for eight years.
On Sunday afternoon, he joined the crowds on the street and was struck by the large police presence.
“People would leave flowers at the [Wulumuqi Road] sign, and then a few seconds later a policeman in plain clothes would take them away.”
As the sun set, more and more police were bussed into the city, Mick said. “They all made a big formation and a bullhorn announced that we were obstructing traffic and pushed the protesters north and south of Wulumuqi road.” Protesters gave speeches to cheers from an encouraging crowd.
Holding white blank pages has become a way for protesters to highlight strict censorship in China, which Mick says people are “sick of”.
“I don’t think there’s much lust for access to western websites, which can be done with a VPN.
“I think people want the Chinese internet to be less censored. Everyone knows that you can’t just say anything you want on the Chinese internet.”
By the time Mick left the scene on Sunday night, blue plastic barricades had been erected to block access to the streets. People who loitered were questioned by police, he said.
“The tactics used by the police on Sunday were overwhelming. I’d say every cop in Shanghai was on standby.”
China continues to pursue a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy to stamp out the virus through mass testing and lockdowns. As of November 29, in the midst of a new outbreak, more than 35,000 infections were recorded, according to China’s National Health Commission, leading to more regions being locked down.
Mick says he welcomed the initial response to keep infections close to zero in Shanghai throughout 2020 and 2021.
He added that there was no “culture war, you just did it because it appeared to work”.
Despite a strict lockdown earlier this year, Shanghai has reopened, although the threat of further lockdowns still looms.
“People always fear another lockdown and get frustrated with how overbearing the QR green code system is.
Residents in each province have personal health QR codes, that indicate their Covid status, that they must scan to enter public spaces like shopping centres, parks and restaurants.
Mick says he thinks the protests will continue in cities and regions that are still locked down.
“This is a message to the government that they can’t just make people stay inside for months at a time.”
“This is a Chinese protest for Chinese people who love China. This protest has a clear message, and the people of China want a future.”