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Chinese protesters demand an end to COVID restrictions and Communist rule

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Extraordinary scenes like this one are happening all over China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

MARTIN: They're shouting, down with China's Communist Party, and, down with Xi Jinping. Thousands are protesting across China, calling for an end to the country's COVID controls. Some are even calling for democratic reform in what has become a rare challenge to China's government. Joining us now, NPR's China correspondent, Emily Feng.

Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, Emily, China's been on COVID lockdowns for the better part of three years. Is this just people getting fed up with living that way?

FENG: Yes. Their frustration has just become irrepressible. People want the end of "zero COVID." These are controls that have throttled the local economy. They keep China's borders shut, and in some cases, they've even denied people lifesaving medical care for other diseases. And actually, earlier this month, it looked like China might be serious about relaxing some aspects of "zero COVID" just so they could get their own economy restarted. But instead, what really happened was COVID cases started to rise, and China closed down as a result. That's led to enormous anger, broken expectations and now these broader demonstrations demanding systemic political change.

MARTIN: So all this has been building for a long time. But was there one particular incident that really triggered the demonstrations we're seeing?

FENG: Yes. And the spark was this apartment fire in China's western Xinjiang region. Ten people died in that fire. And witnesses nearby say they died because they were stuck inside. They were under lockdown. They couldn't get out. One of the victims was named Qemernisa Abdurahman. She had already survived a brutal government crackdown, and she'd made it through more than 100 days of lockdown in Xinjiang when she and four of her children were among those who died in that fire. I spoke to her nephew, Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin, about this 48-year-old mother of 10.

ABDULHAFIZ MAIMAITIMIN: (Through interpreter) They were a very warm, very close family. My aunt's entire life was dedicated to raising and educating her children.

FENG: Her husband and eldest son were detained at the end of 2017, arrested as the Chinese government targeted Uyghurs, a historically Muslim ethnic minority who call Xinjiang their home. Maimaitimin, who is also Uyghur but now living in Switzerland, says he has not heard from them since. So his aunt was home alone with her four youngest children when their house caught on fire Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling).

FENG: You can hear people inside screaming for help, except firefighters could not get to them in time because the entrances were blocked, and the residents said they were locked inside. Maimaitimin says his aunt's neighbors and their relatives took a huge risk when they reached out to him to tell him the tragic news because, as Uyghurs, they could get in trouble just for talking to people abroad.

MAIMAITIMIN: (Through interpreter) They confirmed the news to us and sent me pictures of my aunt and cousins' corpses, and then they deleted us from their contact book again for their safety.

FENG: Abdurahman and her four children, Shahide, Abdurrahman, Nadia and Imran, all under the age of 14, were pronounced dead at the hospital. Maimaitimin says he and his family are devastated by their deaths.

MAIMAITIMIN: (Through interpreter) My aunt never broke any laws or hurt anyone in her life.

FENG: The horror of their deaths and the frustration of living under COVID controls even as the rest of the world opens up is what brought more Chinese people - non-Uyghurs - out into the streets. Since that fire, there have been more than six dozen protests mourning them across China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling in non-English language).

FENG: Here in this video, you can hear students at a Beijing university protesting and shouting, we want rule of law and democracy. And as quickly as protests started, the state cracked down, arresting protesters and anyone sharing videos of them online. But people are still coming out. On Sunday night, thousands gathered along the banks of a Beijing river and chanted for freedom of speech and liberty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling in non-English language).

FENG: Here's Beijing resident Morris Yao.

MORRIS YAO: (Through interpreter) I have been posting information online, trying to get people to unify together and work to get the authorities to lift our lockdown. They actually have no legal power to lock us down. They are limiting our freedom.

FENG: Yao was one of the protesters who came out as part of a small Beijing demonstration over the weekend after authorities tried to put his building under lockdown even though there were zero cases. The demonstration worked. He's now able to go in and out of his compound.

YAO: (Through interpreter) When something like this falls on your head, you really start to pay attention to your own interest and rights.

FENG: People have been wanting to protest for a long time, Yao said. They just needed an opening.

MARTIN: OK. So, Emily, with all that public dissatisfaction and frustration that were - that we just heard, are Chinese officials likely to ease COVID restrictions?

FENG: That's still up in the air. Cases as these protests are going on are still rising. If China wants to get those numbers back to zero, they're going to have to start imposing lockdowns, like, right now. But these protests show that people have had enough of lockdowns. So there's a real dilemma over control. And this is the largest social movement of this size that's happened in Xi Jinping's China. If people continue coming out and protesting, the Chinese state has a real challenge on its hands. Does it crackdown, or does it look the other way?

MARTIN: NPR's China correspondent, Emily Feng, speaking with us today from Taipei, Taiwan.

Thank you so much, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.