Crowds in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou have crashed through lockdown barriers and marched on to streets in a rare outburst of public anger about Covid restrictions days after the Chinese government announced that it was easing them.
According to videos widely shared on Twitter, hundreds cheered as they charged through the streets in Haizhu district in chaotic scenes in southwestern Guangzhou on Monday night. In one piece of footage, protesters overturned a police car.
Local police declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian. “I cannot answer your question,” a staff member at the Datang police station in Haizhu district said on Tuesday.
Guangzhou, home to nearly 19 million people, has been the center of Covid outbreaks in China, with the number of cases surging in recent days. Daily infections of Covid-19 in the city have topped 5,000 for the first time, leading to speculation that localized lockdowns could widen.
Tensions had been mounting in Haizhu district – home to dozens of wholesale textile markets and thousands of small businesses that employ tens of thousands of migrant workers from elsewhere in China – after the authorities placed it under lockdown this month. The restrictions came as workers scrambled to meet production goals to guarantee supplies for an online shopping festival on November 11.
Before public anger boiled over on Monday night, residents and business owners had been skirting government curbs by venturing outside their locked down districts and smuggling their goods out, according to an official at the Guangzhou health commission earlier this month, who denounced the illegal activities.
Radio Free Asia reported that disgruntled workers also protested in several nearby industrial hubs, including Kangle, also in Haizhu district, and Tangxia, in Tianhe district.
A number of posts on China’s social media platform Weibo blamed the protesters, who were mainly migrant workers from Hubei province, for the “rioting”, but one user noted that the arbitrary lockdowns of residences and the barring of migrant workers from returning home in the protracted Covid restrictions over almost three years were “driving people mad” and said some workers had killed themselves.
Last month, a Covid outbreak at a Foxconn factory that makes Apple iPhones in Zhengzhou, central China, prompted a large number of workers to flee and slowed iPhone production.
On Tuesday, China reported 17,772 new local Covid-19 infections for November 14, up from 16,072 a day earlier and the most since April. The Guangzhou health commission reported 5,124 Covid-19 cases as of Monday, of which 4,977 were asymptomatic. Officials also said on Tuesday that they plan more temporary hospitals in addition to the six that have been built that have 20,000 beds, mainly for observation of infected people without symptoms.
The chaos in Guangzhou was the latest outburst of frustration over restrictions that have involved frequent lockdowns and enforced quarantines under China’s “dynamic zero Covid” policy, which the authorities say has saved lives. Many cities have scaled back routine testing after the government announced measures last Friday to lift some of the rules to alleviate economic pressures and cool public discontent.
The Guangzhou health commission said in a news conference on Monday that the authorities were ending lockdowns in many districts as cases were being brought under control. A spokesperson said public transport, industrial production and ordinary life in many districts in Guangzhou, including Haizhu, were resuming. However, she also said the infection was still continuing and a number of districts, including Haizhu, would continue to strengthen pandemic control measures.
The Communist party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily on Tuesday reiterated that the “dynamic zero Covid” policy was to be “unswervingly implemented”, saying the “enhancement” announced last Friday was to fine-tune measures to fight against the pandemic, and not an indication of relaxation.
Under the new rules, testing efforts are to be more targeted, easing a financial burden on cities. On Monday, Beijing’s most populous district of Chaoyang moved some testing sites closer to residential compounds. While that increased the number of sites, it also led to long waiting times for many, fueling frustration as many workplaces require negative test results within 24 hours.
Additional reporting by Reuters