On Monday, China's censors were working to eradicate traces of social media-fueled protests that erupted in major cities over the weekend, demanding political freedoms and an end to Covid-19 lockdowns.
In a wave of nationwide protests not seen since the 1989 suppression of pro-democracy rallies, Chinese citizens took to the streets in multiple major cities on Sunday to demand an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms.
Last week's deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of north-west China's Xinjiang region, has sparked public outrage, with many blaming Covid-19 lockdowns for impeding rescue efforts.
Some have even demanded the resignation of China's President Xi Jinping, who was recently reappointed to an unprecedented third term as the country's leader.
On Sunday, large crowds gathered in Beijing and Shanghai, where police clashed with protesters as they attempted to prevent groups from converging on Wulumuqi street, named after the Uyghur city of Urumqi.
Crowds gathered overnight, with some chanting "Xi Jinping, resign!" CCP, resign!" – had dissipated by Sunday morning.
An eyewitness told Agence France-Presse that in the afternoon, hundreds gathered in the same area with blank sheets of paper and flowers in what appeared to be a silent protest.
At least 400 individuals gathered on the banks of a river in the capital for several hours, shouting, "We are all Xinjiang people!" Go, Chinese folks!
Reporters at the scene described the crowd singing the national anthem and listening to speeches, while a line of police cars waited on the other side of the canal bank.
The search terms "Liangma River" and "Urumqi Road" – locations of protests in Beijing and Shanghai – were scrubbed of any references to the rallies on the Twitter-like Weibo platform, suggesting that state censors had removed all references to the rallies from social media.
Videos depicting university students singing in protest and rallies in other cities have also been removed from WeChat and replaced with notices stating that the content was reported for being "non-compliant or sensitive."
The Weibo search for the hashtag #A4 – a reference to the blank sheets of paper held up at rallies as a symbolic protest against censorship – also appeared to have been manipulated, displaying only a handful of recent posts.
China's stringent information control and continued travel restrictions tied to the zero-Covid policy make it difficult to verify the number of protesters across the vast country.
However, such massive demonstrations are extremely uncommon, as the authorities repress any opposition to the central government.
There were also reports of demonstrations in Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Hong Kong. Protests occurred on Sunday in Wuhan, the central city where Covid-19 first appeared, and in Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Hong Kong.
Frustration with the central government's zero-Covid policy, in which authorities impose sudden lockdowns, lengthy quarantines, and mass testing campaigns for a handful of cases, has fueled their spread on social media.
State-run Monday morning, People's Daily published an editorial cautioning against "paralysis" and "battle fatigue" in the fight against Covid-19, but stopped far short of calling for an end to the hardline policy.
Mr. Alfred Wu Multan, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore, said, "People have reached a boiling point because there has been no clear direction on how to end the zero-Covid policy." The party underestimated the anger of the people. AFP