SHANGHAI (AP) — The mourners in Shanghai lit candles and placed flowers. Someone scrawled “Urumqi, 11.24, Rest in Peace” in red on cardboard — referring to the deadly apartment fire in China’s western city of Urumqi that sparked anger over perceptions the country's strict COVID-19 measures played a role in the disaster.
What started as a small vigil last weekend by fewer than a dozen people grew into a rowdy crowd of hundreds hours later. One woman defiantly shouted for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to resign, emboldening others. Then, before dawn, police swept in and broke up the gathering and prevented more from happening.
The Nov. 26 protest in Shanghai wasn’t the first or the largest. But it was notable for the bold calls for change in China’s leadership — the most public defiance of the ruling Communist Party in decades.
Nationalist bloggers swiftly blamed foreign “black hands,” and the government vowed to crack down on “hostile forces.” But the protest emerged spontaneously, according to 11 participants and witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press. It was the first political demonstration for nearly all of them, and they spoke on condition of not being fully identified for fear of police harassment.
Three grinding years of lockdowns under China’s “zero-COVID” policy, along with Xi's erasure of civil liberties, made the country ripe for such an outburst in a way that nobody expected – not the authorities, the police or protesters themselves.
The vigil on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 26, took place in Shanghai's French Concession, a trendy district filled with boutique Art Deco cafes, vintage shops and historic Tudor mansions. Among the first there were local artists and musicians, according to two friends of early participants.
One bustling boulevard is named after Urumqi — the city in the far-northwestern Xinjiang region where the Nov. 24 fire killed at least 10. Many criticized government COVID-19 restrictions for preventing victims from fleeing, a charge the authorities denied.
Anger soon flared on Chinese social media. Millions of online posts blamed virus control barricades for delaying rescuers, and Urumqi residents hit the streets to protest their months-long lockdown.
Resistance to the policy had been building for weeks. In central Henan province, workers walked out of an iPhone factory when told they’d be locked in as part of virus controls. In cosmopolitan Guangzhou, residents brawled with police enforcing lockdowns.
Earlier that day, from Chengdu in the south to Harbin in the north, university students confined to campuses for months lit candles, sprayed graffiti and took selfies while holding signs mourning the Urumqi dead.
Road signs on Shanghai’s Urumqi Middle Road were surrounded by candles, signs and flowers. Dozens had gathered by 10:30 p.m., according to friends of participants.
Then patrons spilled out of a nearby bar after a World Cup match between South Korea and Uruguay, according to a friend of an early participant. Many joined the vigil, taking photos and sharing them online.
At 11:21 p.m., a popular Twitter account tracking dissent in China posted images of the vigils, drawing the attention of many who had been scrolling anguished posts on the Urumqi fire.
That the blaze resonated in Shanghai was no coincidence, participants said. Many of the city's apartment buildings were sealed-off during a lockdown in April and May, sparking fire safety fears and leaving many seething.
“People could not only empathize with the people in Urumqi, they realized that this could also be them,” said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago.
A person who identified himself only by his French name Zoel said he attended to pay his respects after seeing a photo on the Chinese messenger app WeChat. When he got there past midnight, he found sizable crowds — and police. People had gathered at two spots, laying flowers and lighting candles.
“It was very peaceful, ” Zoel said.
Police soon surrounded the candles, keeping anyone from getting closer.
At one display, a student argued with an officer, according to video sent to AP.
“You're a government worker. You have a future, but do we?” the student shouted. His face then scrunched up and his voice became a whimper: "Do we have a future? Do we?”
Someone distributed sheets of blank paper for people to hold — a symbol of the all-encompassing censorship under Xi.
The mood shifted. New arrivals yelled at the quiet crowd: “Why are you wearing a mask? Take off your mask!”
“They were very extreme,” Zoel said. Until then, he said, it was mostly friendly conversation and greetings, or discussions of the World Cup.
Then came shouted slogans: “Freedom of speech!” “Long live the people!” and “Apologize!”
Shortly after 2 a.m., a female voice rang out: “Xi Jinping, step down!”
Heads turned in shock.
Her boldness shattered perhaps the biggest political taboo in China. Xi, the country’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, has purged the press, tightened censorship and built a digital surveillance apparatus to exert control.
A protester who identified himself only as Marco called the remark "unimaginable.” Speaking Xi’s name strikes fear, he said, because the leader is “an untouchable taboo in many people’s hearts.”
Then another voice chimed in — this time a man's, loud and clear. A hundred or more roared in response.
“Once one person opens their mouth, everyone else dares to speak,” said a protester who initially kept quiet. After hearing people say, “Xi Jinping, step down,” he felt braver and pushed things further by cursing him. Others shouted slurs.
Many blamed Xi, who personally led the way on pandemic policies, for China's harsh approach.
But fearful of a crackdown, some in the crowd left, including Marco. “There were more and more police,” he said. “I was a coward.”
Shortly after 3 a.m., police swung into action.
The clearance operation began when officers in black arrived, moving between the two vigils and cutting the crowd in two, according to two protesters.
Police lined up in formation, locked arms by the dozen and marched toward protesters to push them off Urumqi road, demonstrators said.
Some officers charged, seizing individuals and sending others fleeing. Video seen by AP showed police pushing and tackling protesters. Two witnesses said police also used pepper spray.
By 7 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 27, all protesters were cleared away, according to one who stayed until the end.
A few hours later, however, hundreds returned. Many were newcomers, electrified by images from the night before.
Individuals wandering onto Urumqi Middle Road were pounced on by police and detained. Still, people stayed.
About 3 p.m., a man with a bouquet asked an officer, “I’m holding flowers, is that a crime?” He shouted: “We Chinese need to be a little braver!"
He was seized by police and shoved into a car, according to a witness and images of the incident.
Police cordoned off the vigil site. Tensions between officers and protesters grew.
Some chanted slogans for freedom or against virus restrictions. Others were more sarcastic, shouting, “Serve the people!” — mocking a well-worn Communist motto — according to one protester.
“Do you understand the symbolism of what you’re holding?” one officer told a girl raising a piece of paper. “Don’t be used or incited by others!”
Police in neon green vests hurried people along, picking off individuals at times. Officers entered restaurants and ordered diners to leave in the middle of meals.
“Police violence!” protesters shouted. Others cursed officers as “dogs.”
By around 6 p.m., curious crowds and protesters numbered in the thousands.
Waves of detentions began. Officers charged and arrested people at random, beating or kicking some whom they grabbed, witnesses said. The crowd was packed so tightly that some feared a stampede.
Those detained were forced onto a bus. As it drove away, an AP journalist saw crowds cheering those detained: “Don't give in to these thugs!”
As dusk fell, the crowds thinned.
At around 10:30 p.m. Sunday, about 30 officers in black charged people at an Urumqi Middle Road intersection, sending them fleeing. An AP journalist and others were tackled and hit repeatedly on their heads by police using their hands.
The journalist and four others were put in a police van and taken to a station in northern Shanghai. When one female detainee said she had only been walking on the road, an officer told her: “Shut up.”
At the station, the journalist saw 16 other detainees, mostly in their 20s. Some were injured, including a man with bloodied jeans and a gash above an eye.
Police confiscated phones and demanded passwords. Detainees were taken to interrogation rooms, locked to metal chairs and questioned individually.
When police learned the journalist’s identity, he was released after two hours, without questioning or being pressed for his phone's password.
In a separate incident, police also beat and detained a BBC journalist. The Shanghai police did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
A detainee who identified herself to a reporter only by the Japanese name Kasugawa said she was detained for over 24 hours after an officer saw her taking photos.
She was fingerprinted, photographed and had her iris scanned, and was made to sign printouts of her phone chats after surrendering her password. Upon her release, police returned her phone and warned her not to protest again.
Kasugawa has stayed home since then, fearful of police. But she said the protests gave her hope.
“I didn’t have any expectations for this country, ” she said. “Every time I think about that day, I really just want to cry.”
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.