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In a rare outpouring of public anger, hundreds rallied in Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday to protest against Chinese President Xi Jinping's strict Covid-19 measures.

In Shanghai, China's most populous city, people gathered yesterday night at Wulumuqi Road - which is named after Urumqi - for a candlelight vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

China's hardline Covid-19 strategy is stoking public frustration, with many growing weary of snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns.

A deadly fire that killed 10 people in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China's Xinjiang region, has become a fresh catalyst for public anger, with many blaming lengthy Covid-19 lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts.

Many social media users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down. However, authorities have denied the claims.

Hundreds took to the streets at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University to protest against lockdowns, one witness who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.

"At 11:30 am students started holding up signs at the entrance of the canteen, then more and more people joined. Now there are 200 to 300 people," they said.

'Freedom will prevail'

Participants sang the national anthem and "the Internationale" -- a standard of the international communist movement -- and chanted "freedom will prevail", "no nucleic acid tests, we want food", and "no to lockdowns, we want freedom", they said.

They described students holding up blank pieces of paper, a symbolic protest against censorship.

Corresponding videos shared online showed a crowd in the same location, gathered around a speaker shouting: "This is not normal life, we've had enough. Our lives were not like this before!"

In the early hours of Sunday on central Shanghai's Wulumuqi street -- named for Urumqi in Mandarin -- video showed protesters chanting "Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!" in a rare display of public opposition to the Chinese Communist Party's top leadership.

Frustration is boiling just over a month after Xi secured a third term at the helm of China's Communist Party.

A person who attended the Shanghai protests but who asked not to be identified told AFP they arrived at the rally at 2:00 am (1800 GMT) to see one group of people putting flowers on the sidewalk to mourn the 10 people killed in the Urumqi fire, while another group chanted slogans.

Video taken by an eyewitness showed a large crowd shouting and holding up blank pieces of paper as they faced several lines of police.

The attendee said there were minor clashes but that overall the police were "civilised".

"It's shocking to know that, under today's circumstances, there are still many brave people standing out," they said.

Multiple witnesses said several people were taken away by the police.

Authorities were swift to curb online discussion of the protest, with related phrases scrubbed from the Twitter-like Weibo platform almost immediately after footage of the rallies emerged.

University vigils

Other vigils took place overnight at universities across China, including one at Tsinghua's neighbour Peking University, an undergraduate participant told AFP.

Speaking anonymously for fear of repercussions, he said some anti-Covid slogans had been graffitied on a wall in the university. Some of the words echoed a banner that was hung over a Beijing bridge just before the Communist Party Congress in October.

People had started gathering from around midnight local time, but he hadn't dared join initially.

"When I arrived (two hours later), I think there were at least 100 people there, maybe 200," the undergraduate said.

"People weren't really sure what they should shout. But I heard people yelling: 'No to Covid tests, yes to freedom!'," he said.

Photos and videos he showed AFP corroborated his account.

The students were communicating with security guards and teachers, he said, but it was unclear if they faced punishment for taking part.

The graffiti had already been covered up when he arrived, he said.

Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper.

Hashtags relating to the protest were censored on Weibo, and video platforms Duoyin and Kuaishou were scrubbed of any videos.

Videos from Xi'an, Guangzhou and Wuhan showing similar small protests also spread on social media. AFP was unable to verify the footage independently.

Hundreds of protestors massed outside Urumqi's government offices after the deadly fire, chanting: "Lift lockdowns!", according to reports.

China's 'zero-Covid' strategy

China witnessed 39,506 domestic coronavirus cases today, a record high but small compared to caseloads in the West at the height of the pandemic.

China follows 'zero-Covid' strategy and it has led to massive public anger. Zero-covid policy means snap lockdowns, mass testing, lengthy quarantines, and border controls to stamp out Covid-19 wherever it pops up.

Shanghai's 25 million people were put under lockdown for two months earlier this year, provoking anger and protests.

Chinese authorities have since then sought to be more targeted in their Covid controls, an effort that has been challenged by the surge in infections as the country faces its first winter with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

A number of high-profile cases in which emergency services have been allegedly slowed down by Covid lockdowns, leading to deaths, have catalysed public opposition.

 

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