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In Shanghai, bold calls for change preceded crackdown on protest

Thousands had gathered at vigils for victims of apartment fire before police swept in

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FILE - A protester holding flowers is confronted by a policeman during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China on Nov. 27, 2022. What started as an unplanned vigil last weekend in Shanghai by fewer than a dozen people grew hours later into a rowdy crowd of hundreds. The protesters expressed anger over China's harsh COVID-19 policies that they believed played a role in the deadly fire on Nov. 24 in a city in the far west.
FILE - A protester holding flowers is confronted by a policeman during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China on Nov. 27, 2022. What started as an unplanned vigil last weekend in Shanghai by fewer than a dozen people grew hours later into a rowdy crowd of hundreds. The protesters expressed anger over China's harsh COVID-19 policies that they believed played a role in the deadly fire on Nov. 24 in a city in the far west. (AP Photo, File) (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

SHANGHAI — The mourners in Shanghai lit candles and placed flowers. Someone scrawled “Urumqi, 11.24, Rest in Peace” in red on cardboard — referring to the deadly apartment fire in China’s western city of Urumqi that sparked anger over perceptions that the country’s strict COVID-19 measures played a role in the disaster.

What started as a vigil last weekend by fewer than a dozen people grew into a rowdy crowd of hundreds hours later. One woman defiantly shouted for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to resign, emboldening others. Then, before dawn, police swept in, broke up the gathering and prevented more from happening.

The Nov. 26 protest in Shanghai wasn’t the first or the largest. But it was notable for the bold calls for change in China’s leadership — the most public defiance of the ruling Communist Party in decades.

Nationalist bloggers swiftly blamed foreign “black hands,” and the government vowed to crack down on “hostile forces.” But the protest emerged spontaneously, according to 11 participants and witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press.

Three grinding years of lockdowns under China’s “zero-COVID” policy, along with Xi’s erasure of civil liberties, made the country ripe for such an outburst.

The vigil took place in Shanghai’s French Concession, a trendy district filled with boutique Art Deco cafes, vintage shops and historic Tudor mansions. Among the first there were local artists and musicians, according to two friends of early participants.

One bustling boulevard is named after Urumqi — the city in the far-northwestern Xinjiang region where the Nov. 24 fire killed at least 10. Many criticized government COVID-19 restrictions for preventing victims from fleeing, a charge the authorities denied.

Anger soon flared on Chinese social media. University students confined to campuses for months lit candles, sprayed graffiti and took selfies while holding signs mourning the Urumqi dead.

Road signs on Shanghai’s Urumqi Middle Road were surrounded by candles, signs and flowers. Dozens had gathered by 10:30 p.m., according to friends of participants.

At 11:21 p.m., a popular Twitter account tracking dissent in China posted images of the vigils, drawing the attention of many who had been scrolling anguished posts on the Urumqi fire.

A person who identified himself only by his French name, Zoel, said he attended to pay his respects after seeing a photo on the Chinese messenger app WeChat. When he got there past midnight, he found sizable crowds — and police. People had gathered at two spots, laying flowers and lighting candles.

Shortly after 3 a.m., police swung into action. By 7 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 27, all protesters were cleared away, according to one who stayed until the end.

A few hours later, however, hundreds returned. Many were newcomers, electrified by images from the night before.

Individuals wandering onto Urumqi Middle Road were pounced on by police and detained. Still, people stayed.

About 3 p.m., a man with a bouquet asked an officer, “I’m holding flowers; is that a crime?” He was seized by police and shoved into a car, according to a witness and images of the incident.

By around 6 p.m., curious crowds and protesters numbered in the thousands.

Waves of detentions began. Officers charged and arrested people at random, beating or kicking some whom they grabbed, witnesses said. The crowd was packed so tightly that some feared a stampede.

As dusk fell, the crowds thinned.

A detainee who identified herself to a reporter as Kasugawa said she was detained for over 24 hours after an officer saw her taking photos. She was fingerprinted and photographed and had her iris scanned, and was made to sign printouts of her phone chats after surrendering her password. Upon her release, police returned her phone and warned her not to protest again.

Kasugawa has stayed home since then.

“Every time I think about that day, I really just want to cry,” she said.

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