BEIJING — The crowd was hard to make out at first, a dark mass huddled along the Beijing riverbank after sunset. They stood quietly, almost nervously, dozens of people bundled in thick coats beside yellowed willow trees. At their center was a small altar, strewn with candles and flowers, for the 10 people who died in a fire in western China last week.
Two hours later, that crowd had swelled into the hundreds, a mass of people marching and chanting for freedom, rule of law, an end to the three years of coronavirus restrictions that have dragged life here to a near standstill. Temperatures were frigid, but people stayed for hours, even outlasting a shift change in the police officers who monitored the whole event Sunday night.
“We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom!” the protesters shouted as they wound westward through one of the city’s neatly manicured embassy districts, where a Four Seasons hotel stands alongside humble shops selling traditional breakfast crepes. “Freedom of the press! Freedom of publishing!”
It was an extraordinary scene, rarely seen anywhere in China, let alone the capital, under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader. But the elation of the moment was laced with anxiety about what, exactly, was happening. When some people began shouting explicitly political slogans, others urged them to remain more narrowly focused on opposing Covid controls. Even what to call the event depended on who and when you asked — was it a protest? Or just a vigil?
Rare nationwide protests have broken out in multiple cities in China. Many expressed frustration over stringent Covid lockdowns; others demanded freedom of speech and even the removal of China’s top leader.CreditCredit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
The uncertainty mirrored the broader uncertainty of this moment, a potential turning point for not only China’s zero Covid strategy but also Mr. Xi’s rigid grip on the country he leads. In recent days, protests have erupted across China, from western Urumqi, where the fire broke out, to Shanghai in the east. The excesses of the coronavirus restrictions have united people like no other cause in decades. But in a country where dissent is quickly smothered, and most people have never had the chance to protest, many were unsure what to ask for, let alone what could actually happen.
The only sure thing seemed to be a sense of urgency — that this was a rare moment that had to be seized.
In Beijing, the demonstrations followed long-simmering discontent. On top of three years of the daily intrusions of zero Covid, much of the city has been under a quasi-lockdown for weeks as infections have soared. Many residents have been ordered not to leave home and most shops are closed. The only crowds are long lines for mandatory Covid tests, required every 48 hours to enter the few public spaces still open.
Frustration had already started boiling over earlier in the weekend, as some residents under lockdowns confronted neighborhood officials, demanding to be let out.
But it was only after protests broke out in other cities — Urumqi on Friday night, Shanghai on Saturday — that mass mobilization seemed possible in Beijing, too. Many attendees on Sunday seemed in disbelief that it was happening. “Should we leave?” people murmured to each other throughout the evening.
Yet mixed with the disbelief was a sense of giddy solidarity with all the other places — Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan and more — where similarly unimaginable explosions of pent-up emotion were playing out that night.
“We are all Shanghai people! We are all Xinjiang people!” people chanted.
Even the police response added to the feeling that anything could happen. Though the police presence grew throughout the night, officers kept a relative distance — at least for the moment — filming participants but rarely physically engaging the crowds. Many attendees had expected a quick and fierce suppression, and a common whispered question was when the police might start making arrests.
The unfamiliarity of protest had been clear in the hours before the gathering. As videos of the demonstrations elsewhere in China spread on social media, despite censorship, people began discussing, in encrypted group chats on platforms blocked within China, where to gather in Beijing. A rare protest of several hundred students at Tsinghua University, in western Beijing, early Sunday afternoon fueled excitement.
But people reported that the police had already begun encircling one proposed meeting spot for the later gathering, speculating that someone had shared the plans on WeChat, the heavily surveilled Chinese messaging app. Others tried to communicate in code: “Is anyone planning on going for a walk later?” Even in the minutes leading up to the arranged meeting time of 9 p.m., people were sending anxious messages asking whether others were really going.
They were. By 9:30 p.m., around 100 people, most appearing to be in their 20s or 30s, had gathered on the northern bank of the Liangma River, around the makeshift altar. Some had come alone, but most were in pairs or small groups. Virtually everyone wore a face mask, as much to hide their identities as for protection. There was no apparent organizer, and for long stretches the crowd stood in expectant, almost awkward, silence, many simply holding their phones aloft to film the scene.
Then, someone began singing “L’Internationale,” the left-wing anthem, and others joined in. “To create mankind’s happiness, we must rely only upon ourselves,” they sang gently, almost tentatively.
“This was really unexpected. When we first arrived, no one was here,” said one woman, Cecilia Meng, who said she and her husband had just emerged from a one-week lockdown at home that afternoon. Of the few other people around, “we didn’t know who was one of us.”
But then people approached them after seeing that they were carrying blank white paper, a reference to censorship that has quickly emerged as a symbol of the protests. “And then we knew they were our partners.”
As the crowd grew, the mood shifted quickly and often, from grief to defiance to humor. One moment, a woman was crying out that she was from Xinjiang, lamenting for her home region. The next, people were jokingly calling out to people on the opposite shore, where a crowd had also gathered, to swim over.
When a police officer told people to stop chanting for an end to lockdowns, the crowd quickly pivoted. “Continue lockdowns!” they chanted, in an echo of the sarcasm that had spread online in recent days, as people shared overblown praise for the government to protest censorship. “I want to do Covid tests!”
At certain moments, the protest could have been unfolding anywhere in the world, where people don’t face the dangers of speaking their minds. “Long live the Sitong Bridge hero,” a small group began chanting as the riverside vigil morphed into the westward march, focusing on a lone protester who, in October, hung two banners from a Beijing overpass denouncing Covid restrictions and calling on Mr. Xi to step down.
But immediately, others shouted them down.
“Don’t yell random slogans!” they said.
“We don’t talk about politics! We’re good citizens!” one man loudly added.
That was perhaps the central tension of the evening. The demonstration was astonishingly bold in the mere fact of its existence. But it was also in many ways hyper conservative, undergirded by the participants’ knowledge of its fragility. Every move seemed calculated to keep it alive as long as possible.
Unlike in Shanghai on Saturday, the protesters in Beijing avoided naming Mr. Xi or the Chinese Communist Party. The demonstrations in Shanghai had turned into more violent confrontations, with the police detaining at least two vehicles of people, according to witnesses, though it was unclear if the slogans were the reason.
Hanging over it all was the question of what the point was, in a country where people have grown accustomed to being ruled, not responded to. “We know that our requests won’t be answered. We’re just here to express our emotions,” one participant in Beijing heatedly told an official who engaged with demonstrators around 1 a.m.
“No, there must be an answer!” others in the crowd immediately shouted. “Solve the problems!”
One attendee, a filmmaker who gave only his surname, Wang, said he did not expect much to change because of the protests.
“As Chinese people, our ability to organize is still too weak. We don’t have the experience or the knowledge,” he said. “This” — the ability to gather at all — “is already really hard-won.”
And, though the protest lasted longer than many had expected that evening, it may ultimately have been fleeting. As it stretched toward 2 a.m., the number of police officers grew, with several columns marching briskly down the street in matching black fur collars and white face masks, herding the dwindling number of participants into small groups on the sidewalk. In one group, a woman urged everyone to walk away together, so that no one could be picked off alone.
The streets emptied, and what was left was, again, uncertainty — about what, if anything, would come next. On Monday, the streets were quiet, as lockdowns and Covid closures continued, though police officers guarded some subway stops and intersections. Online, some discussed plans for another gathering that night, proposing potential demands for attendees to coalesce around, such as a government apology to Urumqi.
But others worried that police officers had already infiltrated the group; some said that they had received phone calls from the local police asking where they had been the night before. By early evening, police cars lined the area where people had chosen to gather that evening. Attendees were sparse.