How the deadly fire in Xinjiang ignites a wave of protest against China’s zero-Covid policy?

William Yang
7 min readNov 27, 2022

The deadly fire in Xinjiang triggered a wave of anti-zero-Covid protests across several cities in China. Several participants in one of the biggest protests in Shanghai said the one demand from most protesters is asking the Chinese government to end the strict pandemic control measures.

After a deadly fire killed at least ten people in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, protests against the Chinese government’s zero-Covid policy emerged in several cities across China, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Shanghai over the last two days.

Videos on social media platforms show some protesters raising pieces of white papers to ask the government to end the strict lockdowns that have been imposed on cities across China. At one protest in Shanghai, which was held at a road called Urumqi Road, at least more than 100 protesters chanted slogans such as “Communist party steps down, Xi Jinping steps down.”

One protester who participated in the protest named Jason said after students from his alma mater in Nanjing held a protest against the zero-Covid policy, he decided to join the protest in Shanghai after reading relevant information about the event at 10 p.m. on Saturday night.

“The protest was originally designed to commemorate those who died during the deadly fire in Urumqi and it was supposed to be a silent protest,” he said. “In the beginning, it was very quiet.”

“When I arrived at the scene around 23:40, police had already sealed off the roads leading to the protest site, and a group of protesters was surrounded by a small number of policemen, who were urging them to leave. The police didn’t adopt any violent measures, but the crowd at the protest site grew frustrated with the police,” he added.

Over time, the number of participants grew, and it almost blocked the Urumqi Road, making the situation gradually grow out of hand. “Some people remained silent, but most began chanting slogans, which eventually turned into something such as ‘Xi Jinping, step down’” he said.

At the same time, there were people in the crowd who were suspected to be plainclothes police who were reportedly creating conflicts among the protesters and causing infighting, Jason added.

Andy, who also participated in the demonstration in Shanghai, said that he thought the people who participated in the protest mainly wanted to express their demand of putting an end to the lockdowns and restoring freedom, and he also thought it was a show of attitude.

“I think there is only one demand in all the recent mass protests, and that is to lift the ban and return to normal life,” Andy said. “The radical slogans chanted by protesters in Shanghai are likely the result of emotions.”

“I think the demand for change is an idea held by a very small number of people. From my experience and my knowledge of the Chinese Communist Party, protests like this would be quickly dismantled and could not help to achieve the goal of ending lockdowns,” he added.

According to videos circulating on social media and obtained by DW, more than 100 protesters chanted “Communist Party, step down” on the streets of Shanghai, and repeated the slogan “No PCR tests, no freedom,” which was a slogan written on the banner by the prominent “Bridgeman” last month.

In addition, there were also crowds of people holding up white papers and chanting “Lift lockdowns in Xinjiang,” which was in solidarity with the people of Xinjiang who have been under strict lockdowns for more than three months.

Shanghai protester Jason said that while most of the people who participated in last night’s demonstration were calling for the Chinese government to end the pandemic control measures, some also wanted to express their discontent with the Chinese Communist Party or simply mourn the victims of the Urumqi fire.

“Most people were not aware of the risks of this demonstration, and the few who were aware had left early by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.,” he said. “Last night’s demonstration definitely created a very strong sense of threat to the Chinese government and they could impose stricter controls on Shanghai and on China as a whole.”

“But in China, people lack the tools like Telegram to quickly organize protests, so the expression of the crowd on the scene was actually rather chaotic and lacked unity,” he added.

“This time really feels different”

In addition to the people who joined the protest, some people in Shanghai or other parts of China were also surprised that the demonstration lasted several hours. A Shanghai resident named Emma said that she did not expect the protest to grow into such a large protest.

“I thought I would never hear the slogans that were shouted in my life,” she said. “When I found out about how big the protest was, I regretted not joining them. I should have been there sooner, no matter what.”

“ I’ve always been a very radical figure among my friends, but this time, I kind of hid behind it. I really wanted to participate, to be with everyone, to chant the slogans, to make our voices heard, and I wasn’t afraid,” she added.

Emma said the Xinjiang fire is actually one example of the many secondary disasters that have been a part of China’s harsh zero-Covid policy. This comes on the heels of an accident in Guizhou, China, where a bus carrying people who were supposed to go to a quarantine facility overturned, killing 27 people.

“In the beginning, when people were leaving angry comments on the Internet, I was still pessimistic that it would be the same as before, which is that the comments would be deleted from the Internet the next day and that people would soon forget about it,” she said.

“But I didn’t expect the protests online to be endless, and that people would take to the street at night in Shanghai,” she said. “Perhaps it’s a reflection of people being pushed to the brink mentally by the repeated imposition of the harsh policies.”

“I was really, really moved. I felt that this time was really different. Even if it was only for one night, it was still very different from before,” she added.

Emma expressed her admiration for the Chinese people who took part in the protests on Saturday night, saying that although she had criticized young Chinese people as “cowards” before, the protests that emerged in several parts of China showed that there were finally some young Chinese people who were willing to “stand up for themselves”.

“I have always told people that we have to fight for our rights, and now these demonstrations are the time to fight for our rights,” she said. “Maybe Chinese people are not very experienced in this, as they don’t have clear demands, or they may not even be very united. But we have finally taken this step. If you help yourself, God will help you. If there is another opportunity in the future, I will definitely join the protests,” she added

“The zero-Covid policy is a large-scale test of obedience”

Some Chinese citizens who joined the protests, or those who followed the developments closely via video, said they consider the “zero policy” strictly implemented by the Chinese government over the past two years to be a large-scale experiment of obedience.

Jason, who participated in the Shanghai protest, said that the Chinese government’s insistence on imposing the zero-Covid strategy is actually a form of “famine politics” because the policy is a means of crowd control for Beijing.

Another young Chinese man named Eric, whose family is still in Shanghai, argued that while the Chinese people are far more tolerant of strict pandemic control measures than Westerners, Xi Jinping’s insistence on the “dynamic zero-Covid strategy” has exceeded the bottom line of their tolerance.

“Imagine who can accept not being allowed to leave the house for four months, with no food, no medicine for the chronically ill, and a woman in labor hemorrhaging in front of the hospital because she has no PCR test result? Or lives lost in a bus transporting people to quarantine facilities?”

“All these tragedies had an impact on the Chinese people’s perception of the ‘dynamic zero-Covid strategy,’ which eventually led to nationwide protests,” he added.

“I saw health workers in white hazmat suits beat a citizen’s corgis to death in the name of pandemic control. I also saw cancer patients die without access to chemotherapy and uremic patients die without access to dialysis. This is not a natural disaster but a man-made disaster,” he said.

Eric pointed out that although his own family didn’t suffer too much from this “man-made disaster,” he understands that if this regime is not overturned, sooner or later, everyone will be affected. “It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “That’s why this pandemic has made many Shanghainese think about moving abroad.”

Shanghai protester Jason said that the Chinese government’s strict pandemic control measures are losing their effect. “I think violent clashes between police and citizens like the one that occurred in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district will continue,” he said “But protests like last night’s will face stricter control and it will be difficult to gather so many people again.”

Shanghai resident Emma argued that many people around her would privately say that “life is miserable and there is no hope in sight”, a situation that she said would not have existed in China a year ago.

“This is the so-called political depression,” she said. “I hope the series of protests that came out of the Urumqi fire will actually do something to help at least some people know that they have to stand up and fight because fighting works,” she said.

“I think we can still salvage the situation. Even if there is only a little bit of light, it can still light up the darkness,” she added.

This piece first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.