Agitations erupted across China in response to Xi's signature zero-Covid policy, calling for the powerful leader, who was recently re-elected to an unprecedented third term, to resign.
Authorities struggled to suppress demonstrations in at least eight cities on Sunday, posing a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.
In a wave of nationwide demonstration not seen since pro-democracy rallies in 1989, people took to the streets to demand an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms.
The current wave of protest erupted after a fire killed at least ten people in an apartment building in the northwest city of Urumqi, where some residents have been locked in their homes for four months. This sparked a flood of angry questions online about whether firefighters or people attempting to flee were thwarted by locked doors or other impediments.
On Sunday, huge crowds gathered in Beijing and Shanghai, where police clashed with agitaters as they attempted to prevent groups from converging at Wulumuqi street, named after the Mandarin for Urumqi.
A crowds that gathered overnight, chanting "Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, CCP!" By Sunday morning, they had dispersed.
Some have asked an official apology for the deaths caused by the fire. One member of Xinjiang's Uyghur ethnic group, which has been the target of a security crackdown that has included mass detentions, shared his experiences with discrimination and police violence.
An eyewitness said that in the afternoon, hundreds of people gathered in the same area with blank sheets of paper and flowers for what appeared to be a silent protest.
For several hours in the capital, at least 400 people gathered on the banks of a river, some shouting: "We are all Xinjiang people! Go, Chinese people!"
Reporters on the scene described a crowd echoing the national anthem and listening to speeches, while a line of police cars waited on the other side of the canal bank.
A journalist on the scene of the Shanghai protests on Monday morning noticed a large police presence, as well as blue fences along the pavements to prevent further gatherings.
Social media was scrubbed
The agitation have been fueled by social media, which is heavily censored; the government has been attempting to halt the spread of content about the demonstration, which may cause more civilians to join the streets in solidarity.
State censors appeared to have scrubbed Chinese social media of any news about the rallies, with the search terms "Liangma River" and "Urumqi Road" – protest sites in Beijing and Shanghai – scrubbed of any references to the rallies on the Weibo platform, which is similar to Twitter.
Videos of university students singing in protest and rallies in other cities had also vanished from WeChat, replaced by notices stating that the content had been reported for "non-compliant or sensitive content."
The Weibo search for the hashtag #A4 – a reference to the blank pieces of paper held up at rallies as a symbolic protest against censorship – appeared to be manipulated as well, showing only a handful of posts from the previous day.
The strict control of information in China, as well as ongoing travel restrictions related to the zero-Covid policy, make verifying the number of protestors across the vast country difficult.
However, such large-scale protests are extremely rare, with authorities harshly clamping down on any and all opposition to the central government.
Protests were also held on Sunday in Wuhan, the central city where Covid-19 first surfaced, with reports of protests in Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Hong Kong.
The local media, in their commentary on Monday have warned against "powerlessness" and "battle-scarred" in the fight against Covid – but stopped short of calling for an end to hardline policy.
The weekend protests frightened investors, and Asian stocks opened sharply lower on Monday morning.
China reported 40,052 domestic Covid-19 cases on Monday, a record high but small in comparison to caseloads in the West during the pandemic's peak.
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