Protests against China's heavy COVID-19 curbs spread to more cities, including the financial hub Shanghai on Sunday, nearly three years into the pandemic, with a fresh wave of anger sparked by a deadly fire in the country's far west.
The fire on Thursday that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, has sparked widespread public anger. Many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down, which city officials denied.
The fire has fueled a wave of civil disobedience, including on Friday in Urumqi, unprecedented in mainland China since Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.
In Shanghai, China's most populous city, residents gathered on Saturday night at Wulumuqi Road - which is named after Urumqi - for a candlelight vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.
As a large group of police looked on, the crowd held up blank sheets of paper - a protest symbol against censorship.
Later on, they shouted, “lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!”, according to a video circulated on social media.
At another point a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping", according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest against the country's leadership.
The police tried at times to break up the crowd, Reuters reported.
China is adhering to its zero-COVID policy even while much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus. While low by global standards, China's cases have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections recorded on Saturday.
China defends Xi's signature zero-COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world's second-biggest economy.
On Sunday, Xinjiang officials said public transport services will gradually resume from Monday in Urumqi. Many of its 4 million residents have been under some of China's longest lockdowns, barred from leaving home for as long as 100 days.
A day earlier, Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Ma Xingrui called for the region to step up security maintenance and curb the "illegal violent rejection of COVID-prevention measures".
Also Sunday, a witness told AFP that hundreds of students from Beijing's elite Tsinghua University took part in a protest.
The protest at Tsinghua follows an overnight demonstration at neighboring Peking University.
A Tsinghua student told AFP: "At 11:30 am (0330 GMT) students started holding up signs at the entrance of the canteen, then more and more people joined. Now there are 200 to 300 people."
The witness said a female student held up a blank piece of paper -- an action that has become a symbolic protest against censorship -- and was joined by other women doing the same.
"We sang the national anthem and the Internationale, and chanted 'freedom will prevail', 'no nucleic acid tests, we want food', 'no to lockdowns, we want freedom'," they said.
They shared pictures with AFP that showed a mass of people gathered in a courtyard outside Tsinghua's Zijingyuan canteen, some holding sheets of paper.