THOUSANDS of demonstrators have gone on the rampage across China in the biggest wave of civil disobedience in the country in decades.
Protestors turned violent in cities from Shanghai to Wuhan as frustration with endless lockdowns finally boiled over.
The Chinese Communist Party has long dreaded organised, coordinated public protest, but there were echoes of Tiananmen Square in 1989 - the last time protesters simultaneously demanded reforms in different cities - across the nation on Sunday night and into Monday morning.
Fury against excessive Covid measures spread from Urumqi in the far west to Shanghai in the east to Guangzhou in the south.
Hundreds of demonstrators and police clashed in Shanghai as public anger flared for a third day in the wake of a deadly fire in the country's far west.
The wave of civil disobedience is unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago, as frustration mounts over his lockdown policy nearly three years into the pandemic.
The Covid measures are also exacting a heavy toll on the world's second-largest economy. Protesters also took to the streets in the cities of Wuhan and Chengdu on Sunday, while students on numerous university campuses around China gathered to demonstrate.
An angry mob confronts a police riot van in Shanghai as protests sweep China Reuters
In the early hours of Monday in Beijing, two groups of protesters at least 1,000 strong were gathered along the Chinese capital's 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River, refusing to disperse.
"We don’t want masks, we want freedom. We don’t want Covid tests, we want freedom," one of the groups chanted.
The mass disobedience followed a fire on Thursday at a residential high-rise building in the city of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region. Videos of the incident posted on social media led to accusations that lockdowns were a factor in the blaze that killed 10 people.
Protestors in Beijing chanted 'we want freedom' as demonstrations rocked China Reuters
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference to deny Covid measures had hampered escape and rescue efforts.
Many of the city's four million residents have been under some of the country's longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.
In Shanghai, police kept a heavy presence on Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi, and where a candlelight vigil the day before suddenly escalated into protests.
One 26-year-old protestor said: "We just want our basic human rights. We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far.
"The people here aren’t violent, but the police are arresting them for no reason. "They tried to grab me but the people all around me grabbed my arms so hard and pulled me back so I could escape."
By late Sunday hundreds of people had gathered in the are, some jostling with police trying to disperse them. People held up blank sheets of paper as an expression of protest.
One witness told the Reuters news agency they saw police "escorting people onto a bus" which was later driven away through the crowd with a few dozen people on board. The vigil in Shanghai for victims of the apartment fire turned into a protest against Covid curbs, with the crowd chanting for lockdowns to be lifted.
"Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping", one large group chanted, according to witnesses and videos posted on social media, in a rare public protest against the country's leadership.
The protests are the biggest in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 Reuters
In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began three years ago, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents take to the streets, smashing through metal barricades, overturning Covid testing tents and demanding an end to lockdowns.
Other cities that have seen public dissent include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents on Saturday overturned Covid staff tents and smashed testing booths.
Protesters said they were put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive. China has stuck with Xi's zero-COVID policy even as much of the world has lifted most restrictions.
While low by global standards, China's case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday, prompting yet more lockdowns in cities across the country.
Police form a line to hold back protestors in Beijing as demonstrations sweep China Reuters
Beijing has defended the policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it.
Since Shanghai's 25 million residents were put under a two-month lockdown early this year, Chinese authorities have sought to be more targeted in the Covid restrictions, an effort that has been challenged by the surge in infections as the country faces its first winter with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Widespread public protest is rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent their frustration on social media, while trying to avoid censorship.
Chinese police form a line to try and deter protestors from marching into Beijing Reuters
The protests come a month after Xi secured a third term in charge of China's Communist Party (CCP).
Dan Mattingly, assistant professor of political science at Yale University, said: "This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one response will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters."
He added that as long as Xi had China's elite and the military on his side, he would not face any meaningful risk to his grip on power.