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Xi faces stiffest challenge to rule as Covid outrage sparks mass protests

Xi Jinping faces one of his greatest challenges as president of China after tens of thousands of people took to the streets over Beijing’s strict coronavirus controls and suppression of freedom of speech.

At least 10 cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Chengdu, were shaken by rare political protests over the weekend, triggering clashes with police and security officers that led to a spate of arrests, including of two foreign journalists.

The sudden outbreak of civil disobedience was initially sparked by outrage after a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, was partly blamed on coronavirus restrictions. While most of the protests appeared to have been stamped out by Monday, they followed months of frustration, especially among China’s young people, with relentless lockdowns, quarantines, mass testing and electronic surveillance under Xi’s zero-Covid policies.

Markets in China turned sour in early trading on Monday, with the Hang Seng China Enterprises index in Hong Kong falling as much as 4.5 per cent and the renminbi losing ground against the greenback.

In Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first coronavirus cases emerged, online videos showed thousands of people marching down a street in a popular shopping district, in what appeared to have been the biggest single protest at the weekend.

One person involved told the Financial Times that the crowd numbered into the tens of thousands and “liberated” locked-down neighbourhoods by removing fencing around residential compounds. Demonstrations also broke out in multiple other locations across the city.

The government has urged universities across the country to send students home as soon as possible to quell further dissent on campuses, according to a provincial education official on Monday.

In Beijing, the capital, hundreds of students staged peaceful demonstrations on Sunday at the prestigious Tsinghua and Peking universities. Students in Beijing, as well protesters in other cities, held blank pieces of paper, a rejection of worsening censorship under Xi’s administration.

In the capital, protesters also gathered at a central canal on Sunday, chanting: “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom.” By Monday morning, a dozen police cars and vans were stationed at entrances to the canal.

A bus full of additional officers idled nearby and groups of officers paced up and down the paths that run along the water. Most signs of the protest had been erased.

As the series of vigils over the Urumqi deaths transformed into protests of Xi’s policies, analysts said their scale and stark political demands had not been seen in China for decades. They warned that protesters faced brutal reprisals if dissent flared again.

Xi is the nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong after recently securing an unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist party. A hallmark of his leadership has been an expansion of the state’s draconian surveillance security apparatus and swift crackdown on signs of dissent.

“You’d expect them to have a heavy-handed repressive approach, but that risks creating martyrs, fuelling another wave and giving a rallying cry to the protesters that have already come out,” said John Delury, a China expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“They are smart enough to be aware of the dangers, but they can’t just let it happen either.”

Yuen Yuen Ang, from the University of Michigan, said that while China had always experienced sporadic protests, Beijing feared a “nationwide” movement.

“The protests . . . were not about narrow, local issues. Instead, people were protesting against zero-Covid — a national policy and Xi’s personal agenda, one he had declared that China must ‘stick to without wavering’ only recently in October,” she said.

“This constitutes a challenge to central authority at the highest level.”

At the site of a vigil that began on Saturday evening at a crossroads in Shanghai, police had by Monday morning lined the streets with blue barricades in all four directions. There was a handful of people taking photos and a long queue of police cars, but there were no other signs of the large gathering that had escalated on Wulumuqi Road on Sunday evening.

The incident, which provided some of the most dramatic scenes of civil disobedience in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, continued late into the evening. One person at the site said that police eventually started to arrest people “group by group”.

The blue boards were designed to block off the main road from the pavement, where hundreds of people had congregated and occasionally broken out into shouts or jostles with police.

In Shanghai, a BBC reporter was among those detained. In a statement, the British broadcaster said journalist Ed Lawrence was “beaten and kicked” by the police and held for several hours before being released.

A Reuters reporter was also briefly detained in Shanghai. Further details were not immediately available.

Additional reporting by Nian Liu, Qianer Liu, Wang Xueqiao, Cheng Leng, Arjun Neil Alim, Maiqi Ding, Primrose Riordan and Hudson Lockett

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