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China’s Xi Jinping faces calls to resign as deadly fire sparks unprecedented protests against ‘zero COVID’ policy

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Thousands of people took to the streets China on weekends in the largest public protest actions the country has seen in decades. Demonstrators have gathered in at least ten cities — including Shanghai and Beijing — to call for the resignation of President Xi Jinping over his draconian COVID-19 policies that have forced hundreds of millions of people into their homes.

On Sunday night, CBS News spoke with one of the demonstrators as she joined the throngs of protesters on the streets of Shanghai. The woman, whose identity we are protecting because speaking to the media could lead to her arrest, said residents were “very angry” about the continuous blackouts that have disrupted life in China for years.

She said she and her friends do not support the Chinese government’s handling of COVID, adding: “No one around me supports the policy.”

Protest in Beijing against China's COVID measures
A protester shouts slogans against China’s strict zero measures against COVID on November 28, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


While she was speaking, the police rushed at the crowd of protesters, and the woman was dragged away by her friends.

In videos shared online, other protesters could be heard in the streets chanting: “Down with Xi Jinping!” and “Down with the Communist Party!” — things that so far few people in China would dare to say out loud.

It’s unclear how many people were arrested over the weekend, although the Associated Press reports that dozens were taken away in police vans in Shanghai alone.

Among those detained was a BBC News journalist who said he was kicked and held for hours before being released. Chinese authorities said he did not provide his press credentials when requested.

A BBC reporter said he believed at least one Chinese national was also arrested as they tried to stop police from beating him.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley called the incident “deeply disturbing.”

“It is necessary to respect the freedom of the media and the freedom of protests. No country is an exception,” said Cleverly.

The fire that caused protests

An apartment fire in the western region of Xinjiang last week appears to have been the last straw that pushed people to hack. Ten people died in the blaze, prompting angry mobs to gather around government offices, convinced that strict COVID restrictions had prevented residents from escaping the fire.

It was a nightmare scenario for many Chinese people who live in similar apartment buildings and feared being trapped due to strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. There were others during the COVID-19 pandemic horror stories children and the elderly dying in detention centers due to lack of access to medical care.

Video and audio recordings of residents of an apartment in Xinjiang allegedly begging to be let out of the building to escape a fire have been shared online, sparking further public anger.

Authorities have denied that the COVID restrictions were the cause of the deaths, but people have started holding vigils in sympathy for the victims. Some held blank sheets of paper to symbolize how critical voices are silenced in China.

Officials in the fire region said over the weekend that they would begin easing COVID restrictions by opening up certain areas considered low-risk, and on Monday Beijing city officials said they would no longer build gates to block access to apartments where there are COVID- 19 infections were detected.

But by Sunday evening, the largely peaceful but entirely unprecedented dissent spread across the country, even in the capital, Beijing.

At a regular daily briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “there are forces on social media with ulterior motives linking this fire to the local response to COVID-19.”

Ho-fung Hong, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, told affiliate network CBS News that the situation was the first major test for Xi, who recently won another term as China’s leader.

“Over the past two years, Mr. Xi has backed himself into a corner by pursuing a zero-infection policy for COVID-19. The most rational way for him to deal with the situation, if the protests continue to grow, is to pressure the local authorities to take tough measures while distancing themselves,” Ho-fung said. “But then there is a risk that the local authorities may refuse carefully comply with the directive as they are exhausted by the brutality of zero Covid.”

Aside from specifically denying a link between the COVID restrictions and the fire deaths in Xinjiang, it was unclear how China’s central government would respond to the protests.

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