The country's leadership is facing a wave of unrest across China, fueled by anger over unrelenting Covid lockdowns as well as deep-rooted frustrations over the country's political direction

Shanghai (AFP) - China’s major cities of Beijing and Shanghai were blanketed with security on Tuesday in the wake of nationwide rallies calling for political freedoms and an end to Covid lockdowns.

The country’s leadership faced a weekend of protests not seen in decades, as anger over unrelenting lockdowns fuels deep-rooted frustration with the country’s political system as a whole.

A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, was the catalyst for the wave of outrage, with protesters taking to the streets of cities around the country.

The demonstrators said Covid restrictions were to blame for hampering rescue efforts – claims the government has denied as it accused “forces with ulterior motives” of linking the fire deaths to the strict Covid controls.

Anger over lockdowns has widened to calls for political change, with protesters holding up blank sheets of paper to symbolise the censorship the world’s most populous country is subjected to.

- ‘So many police’ -

More protests were planned for Monday night but did not materialise, with AFP journalists in Beijing and Shanghai noting a heavy police presence of hundreds of vehicles and officers on the streets.

People who had attended weekend rallies told AFP Monday they had received phone calls from law enforcement officers demanding information about their movements.

In Shanghai, near a site where weekend protests saw bold calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping, bar staff told AFP they had been ordered to close at 10:00 pm (1400 GMT) for “disease control”.

Small clusters of officers were deployed to metro exits near the protest site.

Throughout Monday, AFP journalists saw officers detaining four people, later releasing one, with a reporter counting 12 police cars within 100 metres along Wulumuqi street in Shanghai, the focal point of Sunday’s rally.

Despite the overwhelming police deployment, the frustration with zero-Covid remained palpable.

“The (zero-Covid) policies now -– they’re just too strict. They kill more people than Covid,” one 17-year-old passerby who did not want to be named told AFP, saying he had been surrounded by police when passing through the area.

In an audio recording shared with AFP, a man can be heard asking for his address, to which the passerby – who asked to be named Ray – insists law enforcement officers do not “have the right” to demand it.

Map showing current symptomatic cases of the Covid-19 around mainland China as of Nov 29 and the cities where protests have been reported since Nov 25.

Elsewhere, rallies did go ahead.

In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where mass democracy protests erupted in 2019, dozens gathered at the Chinese University to mourn the victims of the Urumqi fire.

“Don’t look away. Don’t forget,” protesters shouted.

In Hangzhou, just over 170 kilometres (106 miles) southwest of Shanghai, there was strict security and sporadic protests in the city’s downtown, with one attendee telling AFP that 10 people were detained.

“The atmosphere was disorderly. There were few people and we were separated. There were lots of police, it was chaos,” she said.

- ‘Many died in vain’ -

Such widespread rallies are exceptionally rare, with authorities harshly clamping down on all opposition to the central government.

But China’s strict control of information and continued travel curbs have made verifying protester numbers across the vast country challenging.

US President Joe Biden is monitoring the unrest, the White House said Monday.

People gather at Columbia University during a protest in support of demonstrations held in China calling for an end to Covid-19 lockdowns

Around the world, solidarity protests also mushroomed.

“Officials are borrowing the pretext of Covid, but using excessively strict lockdowns to control China’s population,” one 21-year-old Chinese participant in a Washington protest who gave only his surname, Chen, told AFP.

“They disregarded human lives and caused many to die in vain,” he said.

- ‘No longer afraid’ -

China’s leaders are committed to zero-Covid, which compels local governments to impose snap lockdowns and quarantine orders, and limit freedom of movement in response to minor outbreaks.

But there are signs that some local authorities are taking steps to relax some of the rules and dampen the unrest.

In Urumqi, an official said Tuesday the city would give a one-off payment of 300 yuan ($42) to each person with “low income or no income”, and announced a five-month rent exemption for some households.

Beijing has banned “the practice of barring building gates in closed-off residential compounds”, official news agency Xinhua said on Sunday.

The practice has fuelled public anger as people found themselves locked in their homes during minor outbreaks.

And an influential state media commentator suggested that Covid controls could be further relaxed – while insisting the public “will soon calm down”.

“I can give an absolute prediction: China will not become chaotic or out of control,” Hu Xijin, with the state-run tabloid Global Times, said on Twitter – which is banned in China.

“China may walk out of the shadow of Covid-19 sooner than expected.”