Protests against strict coronavirus measures have spread across cities in China following a deadly fire at a residential building in the country's far west.

Protesters in Shanghai held up blank sheets of paper as a symbol against censorship while a large group of police looked on.
Protesters in Shanghai held up blank sheets of paper as a symbol against censorship while a large group of police looked on. (Reuters)

Protests against China's strict “zero-Covid” policies have spread to more cities, including in the financial hub Shanghai nearly three years into the pandemic, with a fresh wave of anger sparked by a deadly fire in the country's far west.

In Shanghai, China's most populous city, residents gathered on Saturday night at the city's Wulumuqi Road for a candlelight vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai is named after Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the location of a residential building where a fire broke out and killed 10 people on Thursday. 

The public believes the deaths were caused by excessive lockdown measures that delayed rescue and protests have been ongoing since Friday.

Early Sunday morning, protesters held up blank sheets of paper as a symbol against censorship while a large group of police looked on. Later on, protesters shouted, “lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!”, according to a video circulated on social media.

At another point a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping", according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest unprecedented in mainland China since Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.

Demonstrators cleared with force, pepper spray

A protest resurfaced in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon after police cleared away hundreds of demonstrators in the early morning with force and pepper spray.

Crowds stood and filmed as police started shoving at people who had gathered in the street and shouted, “We don't want PCR tests, we want freedom!” according to and witness who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.

In the northwestern city of Lanzhou, residents on Saturday night upturned temporary Covid staff tents, smashed Covid testing booths and took to the streets in protest, posts widely shared on China's WeChat, Kuaishou and Weibo social media platform showed.

READ MORE: Several dead, injured in apartment fire in northwest China

Police begin arresting protesters 

A protester who declined to be named said that he saw multiple people being taken away, forced by police into vans, but could not identify them.

A crowdsourced attempt online has so far identified six people being hauled away, based on images and videos from the night, as well as information by those who knew the detained. Among the detained is a young woman who is only known by her nickname “Little He."

Posters circulated online calling for further action in Shanghai and in Chengdu, a major city in China's southwest, on Sunday evening. Shanghai's protest called for the release of those taken away.

Online solidarity

Internet users showed solidarity by posting blank white squares on their WeChat timelines or on Weibo. By Sunday morning, the hashtag "white paper exercise" had been blocked on Weibo.

Some posted screenshots of street signs for Wulumuqi Road, both to evade censors and show support for protesters in Shanghai. Others shared comments or posts calling for all of “you brave young people” to be careful. Many included advice on what to do if police came or started arresting people during a protest or vigil.

The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

China is battling a surge in infections that has prompted lockdowns and other restrictions in cities across the country as Beijing adheres to a zero-Covid policy even while much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

While low by global standards, China's case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections reported by health authorities on Sunday for the previous day.

China defends Xi's signature zero-Covid policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world's second-biggest economy.

READ MORE: Deadly fire in Xinjiang stirs anger over China's zero-Covid policy

Source: TRTWorld and agencies