Protesters call for Xi to resign amid unprecedented unrest over China's COVID-19 measures

Protesters angered by China's strict COVID-19 measures called for President Xi Jinping to resign, as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to suppress demonstrations that represent a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.

Widespread public protest is extremely rare in China, the world's second-largest economy

Protesters shout slogans during a protest against China's strict zero-COVID measures on Monday in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

What you need to know:

  • Protests erupted after a fire killed at least 10 in the city of Urumqi where some people have been locked in their homes for four months. 
  • Frustration is mounting over President Xi Jinping's signature zero-COVID policy nearly three years into the pandemic.
  • Widespread public protest is extremely rare in China, the world's second-largest economy.

Protesters angered by strict COVID-19 measures called for China's powerful leader to resign, a rare rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to suppress demonstrations Sunday that represent a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.

The wave of civil disobedience is unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago, as frustration mounts over his signature zero-COVID policy nearly three years into the pandemic. The COVID-19 measures are also exacting a heavy toll on the world's second-largest economy.

The protests — which began Friday and have spread to cities including the capital, Beijing, and dozens of university campuses — are the most widespread show of opposition to the ruling party in decades.

Police using pepper spray drove away demonstrators in Shanghai who called for Xi to step down and an end to one-party rule, but hours later people rallied again in the same spot. Police again broke up the demonstration, and a reporter saw protesters under arrest being driven away in a bus.

WATCH | Anti-lockdown protesters in Shanghai call for China's president to resign:

Anti-lockdown protesters in China chant 'Down with Xi Jinping!'

4 months ago
Duration 0:41
Protesters in Shanghai demanded an end to COVID-19 restrictions and called for China's president to resign, as police across the country struggle to contain an unprecedented wave of civil unrest sparked by a deadly fire in a western city.

In a video of the protest in Shanghai verified by The Associated Press, chants against Xi, the most powerful leader since at least the 1980s, and the Chinese Communist Party sounded loud and clear: "Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!" People also held up blank sheets of paper as an expression of protest.

A large crowd also gathered in the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu, according to videos on social media, where they also held up blank sheets of paper and chanted: "We don't want lifelong rulers. We don't want emperors," a reference to Xi, who has scrapped presidential term limits.

At the campus of Beijing's Tsinghua University, a large crowd gathered, according to images and videos posted on social media. Some people also held blank sheets of paper.

Protesters stand on a street in Shanghai holding blank sheets of paper, which have become an expression of protest, during a demonstration against pandemic restrictions on Sunday. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began three years ago, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents take to the streets, smashing through metal barricades, overturning COVID-19 testing tents and demanding an end to lockdowns.

Other cities that have seen public dissent include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents on Saturday overturned COVID-19 staff tents and smashed testing booths, posts on social media showed. Protesters said they were put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive.

Anger over deadly fire

The current protests erupted after a fire broke out Thursday, killing at least 10 people in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi in the northwest, where some have been locked in their homes for four months. 

That prompted an outpouring of angry questions online about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other restrictions.

A man is arrested at a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Shanghai on Sunday. Protests have spread across China since Friday, after a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, with some demonstrators calling for the ouster of President Xi Jinping. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference on Saturday to deny that pandemic measures had hampered escape and rescue efforts.

Three years after COVID-19 emerged, China is the only major country still trying to stop transmission of COVID-19. Its "zero COVID" strategy has suspended access to neighbourhoods for weeks at a time. Some cities carry out daily virus tests on millions of residents.

That has kept China's infection numbers lower than those the United States and other major countries, but public acceptance has worn thin.

People who are quarantined at home in some areas say they lack food and medicine. The ruling party faced public anger following the deaths of two children whose parents said anti-virus controls hampered efforts to get medical help.

Protesters and police square off at a demonstration in Shanghai on Sunday night. (Casey Hall/Reuters)

China defends its COVID-19 policies as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the health-care system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world's second-biggest economy.

Protest extremely rare

Widespread public protest is extremely rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent on social media, where they play cat-and-mouse with censors.

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

"This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one response will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters," said Dan Mattingly, assistant professor of political science at Yale University.

Still, he said, the unrest is far from that seen in 1989, when protests culminated in the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. He added that as long as Xi had China's elite and the army on his side, he would not face any meaningful risk to his hold on power.

 WATCH | China protests grow bolder as they spread: 

COVID-19 lockdown protesters in China call for president to resign

4 months ago
Duration 2:27
In an unprecedented wave of dissent, protesters in mainland China are calling for President Xi Jinping to resign over his harsh zero-COVID policy, which has put some people into lockdown for months.

This weekend, Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Ma Xingrui called for the region to step up security maintenance and curb the "illegal violent rejection of COVID-prevention measures."

Xinjiang officials have also said public transport services will gradually resume starting Monday in Urumqi.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?