How COVID protests spread across China

A timeline of recent protests

Protests have flared in several cities in mainland China in recent days, in a wave of civil disobedience unprecedented since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago. Simmering discontent with COVID prevention policies ignited into broader protests following a fire on Thursday in the western province of Xinjiang that killed 10 people, which some internet users said was worsened by partial lock-down measures. Officials have denied that.

Using social media images and reporting in China, Reuters has assembled a time-line of the protests in recent weeks.

Protests reported across China

Protest map

Although the demonstrations in recent days are thousands of miles apart, they share elements in common. Protesters at several of them have used flowers or signs to commemorate those killed in Thursday’s fire. Others have held blank sheets of paper as a sign of dissent at censorship in China. At almost every site, protestors have called for an end to China’s onerous COVID prevention policies. The country of 1.4 billion people has spent nearly three years living with some of the strictest COVID curbs in the world, even as most other countries have tried to coexist with the virus.

The policy has kept China's death toll much lower than many other countries but it has come at the cost of long spells of confinement at home for many millions and damage to the world's second-biggest economy. Chinese officials say it must be maintained to save lives, especially among the elderly given their low vaccination rates.

A spokesman for the foreign ministry, asked on Monday about recent public anger against lockdown rules, denied that was what had happened and said China’s Covid policies will be successful.

Nov. 14 – Guangzhou protests

Crowds of people in the southern port of Guangzhou, one of China’s biggest cities, crashed through COVID barriers and marched down streets in chaotic scenes in a show of public resentment over coronavirus curbs.

Large in-person protests are rare in China, where room for dissent has been all-but eliminated under Xi Jinping, forcing citizens mostly to vent on social media.

Among the latest outbreaks of COVID-19 in China, Guangzhou's is the largest, with new daily infections topping 5,000 in November.

Video shows crowds topple police barricades in the street to protest against COVID curbs in China’s Guangzhou

Crowds topple police barricades in the street to protest against COVID curbs in Guangzhou, China.

Nov. 23 – Foxconn protests

Men wielding sticks smashed surveillance cameras and windows at Foxconn’s flagship iPhone plant in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, in Henan province. Others used metal poles and barriers as projectiles in violent tussles with people clad in white hazmat suits at the vast plant, which can house some 200,000 workers.

The violence marked a major escalation of problems at the plant. The trigger for the protests appears to have been a plan to delay bonus payments, many of the demonstrators said on livestream feeds. Resentment had been brewing for some time as workers fled the plant after the company tightened internal COVID rules.

Video shows Foxconn workers smash surveillance cameras, break windows and clash with security personnel in China

Foxconn workers smash surveillance cameras, break windows and clash with security personnel in China

Nov. 24 – Urumqi fire

The spark for the widespread public anger of recent days was a fire in a high-rise building that killed 10 people on Thursday night in Urumqi, the capital of the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. The incident went viral on Chinese social media as many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down. Videos of the fire were promptly erased from social media.

Video shows high-rise building on fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang

High-rise building on fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang

Officials in Urumqi quickly organised a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny that COVID measures had hampered residents’ escape and rescue efforts. Some internet users have continued to question the official narrative.

Nov. 25 – Urumqi protests

Crowds took to the streets at night in Urumqi, chanting "End the lockdown!" and pumping their fists in the air. Large crowds of people pressed against locked gates, breaking through into the night, videos showed. Many of Xinjiang’s 4 million residents have been under one of China’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.

Video shows people in China’s Xinjiang protesting against COVID lockdown measures in China

Protests against COVID lockdown measures in China's Xinjiang

In the capital, Beijing, some 2,700 km (1,678 miles) to the east, some residents under lockdown staged small-scale protests or confronted local officials over movement restrictions. Some successfully pressured officials into lifting the curbs ahead of schedule.

Nov. 26 – Shanghai vigil for Urumqi

On Saturday in Shanghai, China’s largest financial centre, a peaceful candle-lit vigil was held on Wulumuqi Road, the Chinese characters of which are the same as those for Urumqi. At the site, one of the wealthiest areas in the city, protesters commemorated the dead with signs on which Urumqi was written and the date of the fire. There was a heavy police presence and, in one face-off, a lone protester shouted at a wall of police: “If we can’t work, how can we make money.” Group chants included a back and forth of shouts of “CCP” and “Resign”. Some protestors were hauled off by police.

Video shows Shanghai residents hold candlelight vigil for Urumqi fire victims, protest against Chinese leadership and strict COVID measures

Some Shanghai residents hold candlelight vigil for Urumqi fire victims, protest against Chinese leadership and strict COVID measures

Nov. 27 – Protests spread further

Hundreds of demonstrators and police clashed in Shanghai on Sunday night as protests over China's stringent COVID restrictions flared for a third day. Multiple demonstrators and at least 3 journalists were detained, as police sought to disperse groups of singing protestors holding blank sheets of white paper - a symbol of the protests - moving along Wulumuqi Road.

Video shows Shanghai residents confront police, sing anthem in lockdown protest

Shanghai residents confront police, sing anthem in lockdown protest

At Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University on Sunday, dozens of people held a peaceful protest against COVID restrictions during which they sang the national anthem, according to images and videos posted on social media.

Video shows students at China's top Tsinghua University protest COVID lockdown measures

Students at China's prestigious Tsinghua University protest COVID lockdown measures

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

In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began three years ago, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents taking to the streets, smashing through metal barricades and singing the national anthem.

Video shows COVID restriction protesters take to the streets in China's Wuhan

COVID restriction protesters take to the streets in China's Wuhan

Other cities that have seen public dissent include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents on Saturday overturned COVID 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.

Nov. 28

In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters totaling at least 1,000 people gathered along the Chinese capital's 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.

Video shows Beijing residents protest COVID-19 lockdown measures

Beijing residents protest COVID-19 lockdown measures

Later in the day, however, there were no signs of new protests in Beijing or Shanghai and dozens of police had deployed in the areas where the demonstrations took place.

State media on Monday did not mention the protests, instead urging citizens in editorials to stick to COVID rules.

On Monday evening, dozens of protesters gathered in Hong Kong's Central business district, the scene of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Several students also gathered at the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong to mourn those who died in Xinjiang, according to video footage online.

Video shows protesters in Hong Kong hold white paper and flowers in support of China’s COVID protests

Protesters in Hong Kong hold white paper and flowers in support of China’s COVID protests

Protests against China's strict zero-COVID policy and restrictions on freedoms have spread to at least a dozen cities around the world in a show of solidarity with the rare displays of defiance in China.

The protests roiled global markets on Monday, sending oil prices lower and hammering Chinese stocks.

Many analysts say China is unlikely to end its Covid restrictions before March or April, and needs an effective vaccination campaign before that. "The demonstrations do not imminently threaten the existing political order, but they do mean the current COVID policy mix is no longer politically sustainable," analysts at Gavekal Dragonomics wrote in a note.

"The question now is what re-opening will look like. The answer is: slow, incremental and messy."


Videos gathered by Reuters

Edited by

Anand Katakam, Daniel Flynn