China protests: At the heart of protests against zero-Covid, young people cry for freedom

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For the first time in decades, thousands of people have taken to universities and the streets of major cities to defy Chinese authorities, demanding not only freedom from constant Covid tests and lockdowns, but stricter censorship and communist rule. The party has a tight grip on everyone. aspects of life.

Across the country, “Azadi Wahte Hai” has become a rallying cry of protests led mainly by the younger generation, some of them very young, who have shown previous acts of open dissent against the government. I participated.

“Give me freedom or give me death!”, according to videos circulating online, chanted hundreds of mobs in several cities. A fire in Xinjiang that killed at least 10 people has turned into political rallies.

Videos circulating online appear to show that China’s strict zero-covid policy initially prevented emergency workers from accessing the scene, angering residents across the country who have endured three years of varying Covid controls. .

Some protesters chanted for freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and other political demands in cities ranging from the eastern financial hub of Shanghai to the capital Beijing, the southern city of Guangzhou and Chengdu in the west.

CNN has confirmed protests in 16 locations, with reports of others taking place in dozens of other cities and universities across the country.

HONG KONG, CHINA - NOVEMBER 28: People hold blank sheets of paper as police setup a vigil in the Central District on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China in protest of the COVID ban in the mainland.  Protesters took to the streets in several Chinese cities after a deadly apartment fire in Xinjiang province sparked a national outcry as many blamed the deaths on COVID restrictions.  (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to show solidarity with the mainland

While protests in many parts of China over the weekend appeared to be largely peaceful, some faced a harsh response from authorities – and security has been tightened across cities across the country as Authorities have far-reaching surveillance and security capabilities.

In Beijing, a heavy police presence was evident on Monday evening, a day after protests broke out there. Police vehicles, many with their lights flashing, lined quiet streets throughout the capital, including near Liang Makiao in the city’s central Chuang District, where a large crowd of protesters gathered on Sunday night. was collected.

Asked on Monday whether the “widespread display of anger and frustration” seen across the country could prompt China to move away from its zero-covid approach, a foreign ministry spokesman disagreed. The proposals were rejected.

“What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened,” said spokesman Zhao Lijian, who added that officials “make recommendations” in their Covid policies based on “facts on the ground”. are doing

He said that we believe that with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful.

Demonstrators hold blank sheets of paper during a protest in Beijing on November 28.

In a symbolic protest against ever-tightening censorship, young protesters across China held up sheets of white paper – a metaphor for the countless critical posts, news articles and outspoken social media accounts that have been deleted from the internet. .

“I think in a just society no one should be criminalized for their speech. We shouldn’t have just one voice in our society – we need different voices,” a Beijing protester told CNN early Monday. said as he marched down the city’s Third Ring Road with a thin stack of white A4 paper.

“I hope that in the future, I won’t have a white piece of paper for what I really want to express,” said the protester, who is not being named because of concerns about the repercussions of speaking to CNN.

Over the weekend, censors moved quickly to purge videos and photos of the protests from the Chinese internet, even as the shocking images made headlines around the world.

In online comments, Chinese state media made no mention of the protests, instead focusing on the strengths of Beijing’s anti-Covid policies, stressing that they are both “scientific and effective.”

But for many protesters, the protests are about much more than Covid — they’re bringing together many free-thinking young people whose efforts to speak out might otherwise be thwarted by strict online censorship.

A Shanghai resident in his 20s who took part in the candlelight vigil early Sunday said he was greeted by other young people carrying white papers, flowers and marching towards the makeshift memorial. They were chanting “We want freedom” while walking.

“My friends and I have all experienced the Shanghai lockdown, and the so-called ‘iron fist’ (of the state) has fallen on all of us,” he told CNN. That I could finally do something. I couldn’t sit still, I had to go.

They wept silently in the crowd as slogans demanding freedom rose.

“At that point, I realized I wasn’t alone,” he said. “I realized I’m not the only one who thinks this way.”

Shanghai residents hold a candlelight vigil to mourn the victims of the Xinjiang fires on November 26.

In some cases, protests have taken on an even more defiant tone and openly called for political change.

During the first night of protests in Shanghai, a crowd chanted “Go away, Xi Jinping! Go away, Communist Party! In an unprecedented, direct challenge to the supreme leader.” Some protesters chanted Xi again on Sunday night. Raised slogans for dismissal.

In Chengdu, protesters did not chant Xi’s name, but his message was hard to miss. Hundreds of people chanted on the banks of a bustling river in a popular dining and shopping district on Sunday evening, according to “Resist Dictatorship!” videos and a participant.

We do not want a ruler for life. We don’t want an emperor! he shouted in reference to the thinly veiled Chinese leader, who broke the norm last month for a third term in office.

According to participants, the crowd also protested amendments to the party charter and state constitution – which would have enabled XI to further strengthen its grip on power and abolish presidential term limits.

As in Shanghai, the gathering began as a small candlelight vigil for those who died in the fire in Urumqi on Thursday.

Demonstrators in Chengdu light candles for victims of fires in Xinjiang on November 27.

But as more people gathered, the vigil turned into a rallying cry to air political grievances.

“Everyone naturally started chanting,” the participants said. “It’s so rare that we have such a large-scale gathering and demonstration. The words of mourning are not enough, and we have to say some of the words we want to say.

For him, the experience of suffocating censorship inevitably provokes a desire for “institutional and spiritual freedom”, and the mourning of the victims and the demand for democracy and freedom are two “musts”.

“We all know that the reason we continue to have lockdowns and covid tests is because it is a political movement, not a scientific and logical response to contain the epidemic,” he said. “That’s why we have more political demands than lifting the lockdown.”

Chengdu protesters said they felt encouraged by the wave of protests across the country.

“It turns out there are a lot of people who are wide awake,” he said. “I feel like I can see a glimmer of light.”

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