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Police officers block Urumqi street in Shanghai during protests against China's zero-COVID policy in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, on Nov. 26.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

Protests against the country’s stringent “zero-COVID” policies flared in cities across China this weekend, in the largest and most sustained show of defiance to Beijing’s rules since the pandemic began.

In Shanghai, hundreds gathered on Urumqi Road for a candlelight vigil for the victims of a fire in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, which left at least 10 people dead. While much about the blaze remains unclear, reports that residents could not escape in time because of lockdown restrictions have sparked fury across the country.

Videos from the scene showed people singing the Chinese national anthem – which includes the line “Arise, you who refuse to be slaves!” – and holding up blank pieces of paper, an increasingly common symbol of protest in China. Others shouted “end the lockdown in Xinjiang,” and called for President Xi Jinping to “step down.”

Protesters returned Sunday amid a far greater police presence, with many laying flowers that were swiftly confiscated. Meanwhile, the BBC said that Chinese police assaulted and detained one of its journalists covering the protest in Shanghai, before releasing him after several hours.

Earlier in the day, residents of Wuhan – which spent much of 2020 under intense lockdown – tore down barricades confining people to their neighbourhoods. Wuhan is the Chinese city where the COVID-19 pandemic originated.

Many also gathered Sunday evening in Beijing, including on the campus of Tsinghua University, Mr. Xi’s own alma mater. Videos showed mostly young people holding blank paper in the air, and after police told them not to chant “no more lockdowns,” they began calling for “more lockdowns” and saying “I want to do COVID tests!”

On Saturday, there were protests in dozens of cities across the country, particularly on university campuses, while the day before people marched through Urumqi itself, one of the most controlled and surveilled parts of China.

Online, many shared images from the protests and posted messages of solidarity, as censors struggled to keep up. Hashtags popped up and were swiftly deleted throughout the weekend, and blank images reading “this cannot be shown due to a rule violation” became a common sight on many people’s feeds.

While protests are not unheard of in China, and worker unrest is particularly common in some parts of the country, such incidents are usually isolated and do not spread beyond their specific city or province. China’s vast censorship apparatus is hyper-focused on preventing widespread unrest, while police regularly crack down on protests, either in the moment or later sweeping in to arrest leaders and participants.

“What’s happened in the past 24 hours is novel in that protesters have appeared on the streets in multiple cities with apparent knowledge of what is happening in other parts of the country,” said William Hurst, Chong Hua Professor of Chinese Development at the University of Cambridge.

Writing on Twitter, Mr. Hurst predicted that the protests will likely fizzle out, particularly if the authorities maintain the apparently soft touch they showed on Saturday.

“A second possibility is some form of comprehensive and decisive repression,” he said, adding that this “would be extremely costly for the state, however.”

“It would not be undertaken lightly, as it would also raise the stakes. It’s thus a decidedly second-best option and not as likely as the protests fizzling.”

Mr. Hurst said concessions on COVID-19 policy or a systemic shift was the “much less likely option.”

Indeed, while public anger over COVID-19 in the past year has seen some local authorities apparently bend to pressure – such as announcing that “COVID zero” has been hit and restrictions can be eased in the wake of unrest – the central government has repeatedly doubled down on its tough approach.

On Sunday, the front page of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, urged the country to “have more confidence and do a solid job in preventing and controlling the epidemic.”

An editorial in the paper said that China’s “prevention and control policies can stand the test of history,” adding that they are “the most economical and the most effective.”

For the first two years of the pandemic, China’s control over infections and low death rate was a major point of pride. But anger over the “COVID zero” approach has been growing all year, particularly as the rest of Asia – even the Chinese territory of Hong Kong – has opened up. When the World Cup began recently, many in China remarked on the contrast between their country and the tens of thousands of mask-less fans gathering in Qatar.

“When the virus first came, the whole world was starting from the same place,” soccer fan Amy Wen told The Globe and Mail. “But now, we are the only ones living in the gloom of late 2019.”

Frustration with restrictions has turned to anger over several deadly incidents linked to COVID-19 policies. In September, 27 people were killed and another 20 injured when a bus carrying them to government quarantine overturned in Guizhou, in southwestern China.

Last week, the government of the central city of Zhengzhou apologized for the death of a four-month-old girl who was in quarantine. Her father said his efforts to take her to a hospital were delayed after ambulance workers balked at helping them because he tested positive for the virus.

The Urumqi fire has provided another apparent example of restrictions designed to keep people safe seemingly putting them in more danger.

Officials in Xinjiang have denied assertions that residents could not escape Thursday’s deadly high-rise fire because of lockdown measures. But online, unconfirmed photos of padlocked fire escapes and barriers spread widely and many questioned the official narrative and even the death toll.

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said the comments from authorities that the residents of the Urumqi building had been able to go downstairs and thus escape was likely to have been perceived as victim-blaming and further fuelled public anger.

“During the first two years of COVID, people trusted the government to make the best decisions to keep them safe from the virus,” Mr. Yang said. “Now people are increasingly asking tough questions and are wary about following orders.”

Even before the Xinjiang fire, there were signs of many Chinese reaching their breaking point with COVID-19. Workers at a Foxconn plant in southern China were filmed brawling with anti-epidemic workers and police after being placed under lockdown this month, and videos of residents confronting and even clashing with authorities trying to enforce restrictions have become more common across the country.

Many of the reasons that led to China’s original tough measures remain the same however, namely a poor vaccination rate among the elderly and fear of overwhelming medical infrastructure in rural areas. Lifting or even easing COVID-19 restrictions now could be particularly difficult, as infections usually spike in winter months and China is currently grappling with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

“The next few weeks could be the worst in China since the early weeks of the pandemic both for the economy and the health care system,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, wrote this month.

“While there is little prospect of the authorities opting to step back from the zero-COVID policy during the winter, there is a significant risk that containment efforts fail. In that case, restrictions would probably be imposed nationwide to flatten the curve of infections.”

With reports from Reuters and the Associated Press