BEIJING — Protests against China’s sweeping virus checks that have confined millions of people to their homes have spread to Shanghai and other cities after complaints they may have worsened the death toll in a burned-out apartment in the northwest.
Shanghai police used pepper spray on about 300 protesters, according to a witness. They gathered Saturday night to mourn the death of at least 10 people in an apartment burned down last week in Urumqi, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Videos posted on social media saying they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south and at least five other cities showed protesters fighting 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 could not confirm details of other videos.
President Xi Jinping’s government is facing mounting anger over its “zero COVID” policy that has closed off access to areas across China in an attempt to isolate all cases 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 that of the United States and other countries. But the ruling Communist Party faces mounting complaints about the economic and human cost as businesses close and families are cut off for weeks with limited access to food and medicine.
Some protesters were shown on videos chanting for Xi to step down or for the ruling party to step down from power.
Party leaders promised last month to make the restrictions less disruptive by easing quarantine and other rules, but said they were sticking to “zero-COVID.” Meanwhile, a surge in infections that pushed daily cases above 30,000 for the first time has prompted local authorities to impose restrictions that residents complaints say exceed what is allowed by the national government.
The fire deaths in Urumqi triggered a flurry of angry questions online about whether the firefighters who needed three hours to extinguish the blaze or the victims trying to escape might have been obstructed by locked doors or other controls. Authorities denied this, but the disaster became a focus of public anger over disease restrictions, ruling party propaganda and censorship.
In Shanghai, protesters gathered on Middle Urumqi Road at midnight with flowers, candles and banners reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace,” according to a participant who gave only his last name, Zhao.
Zhao said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper-sprayed. He said the police stomped on his feet when he tried to stop his friend from being taken away. He lost his shoes and went barefoot.
According to Zhao, the protesters chanted slogans such as “Xi Jinping, resign, Communist Party, resign,” “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China,” “I don’t want PCR (tests), I want freedom,” and “freedom of the press.”
About 100 police officers lined up to prevent the protesters from gathering or leaving, Zhao said. He said that the buses with more police arrived later.
Another protester, who gave only his last name, Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of protesters, but police stopped in the street and let them through on the sidewalk.
Internet users posted videos and accounts on Chinese and foreign social media showing protests in Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest and Urumqi and Korla in Xinjiang.
A video that said it was filmed in Urumqi showed protesters chanting: “Let’s eliminate the Communist Party! Eliminate Xi Jinping!”
Protests in Xinjiang are especially dangerous after a security crackdown on Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, mostly Muslims, that has included mass arrests.
Most of the protesters in the videos were members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group. An Uyghur woman in Urumqi said the Uyghurs were too scared to go out on the streets.
“The Han Chinese know that they will not be punished if they speak out against the lockdown,” said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to jail or to the fields.”
Posts on Chinese social media were quickly removed, which Beijing often does to suppress criticism that it fears it could 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 that they lack access to food and medicine and have posted appeals for help online.
In a possible attempt to placate the public, authorities announced on Saturday that they had achieved “social COVID zero” and that restrictions would be eased in Urumqi and Korla. The government said taxis, trains, buses 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 the news that the disease was under control with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can reach this speed,” wrote one user on the Sina Weibo social networking service.
Anger erupted earlier after Urumqi city officials appeared to blame residents of the apartment tower for the deaths in the Thursday night fire.
“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” Li Wensheng, head of the Urumqi fire department, told a news conference.
Police announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman accused of spreading “false information” about the death toll online.
On Friday night, people in Urumqi marched largely peacefully in large padded winter jackets in the cold winter night.
Videos from the protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and chanting “Open up, open up.” Some screamed and pushed against rows of men in white protective suits.
Two Urumqi residents who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said large-scale protests took place on Friday night. One of them said that he had friends who participated.
AP pointed to the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police wearing masks and hospital gowns confronted screaming protesters. In another, a protester spoke to a crowd about his demands. It was not clear how widespread the protests were.
Xi has defended the strategy as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system compared to the United States and other Western countries, which have politicized mask-wearing and struggled to enact widespread lockdowns.
But support for “zero COVID” has collapsed in recent months as the tragedies sparked public anger.
Last week, the Zhengzhou central city government apologized for the death of a 4-month-old girl who was in quarantine. Her father said her efforts to get her to a hospital were delayed after ambulance workers refused to help them because he tested positive for the virus.
The Uyghur woman in Urumqi said she had not been able to leave her apartment since Aug. 8 and was not even allowed to open the window. On Friday, she and her neighbors defied the order, opening their windows and yelling in protest.
“No more lockdowns! No more blocks!” they yelled, according to the woman.