Shanghai blanketed by heavy police presence after weekend protests
The flashing lights from lines of police cars blanketed the streets of Shanghai Monday night, as hundreds of officers patrolled city landmarks and the site of a weekend anti-lockdown protest that called for greater political freedoms.
A deadly fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi has catalysed public anger across China, with many blaming Covid measures for hampering rescue efforts.
Large crowds congregated in downtown Shanghai on Sunday where police clashed with protesters as they tried to stop groups converging at Wulumuqi street — named after the Mandarin for Urumqi.
On Monday there was a heavy police presence in the area again, and throughout the day AFP witnessed officers detaining four people, later releasing one.
“The atmosphere tonight is nervy. There are so many police around,” a man in his early 30s told AFP as evening fell.
Giving the pseudonym “Taku”, he said he had lost his job at an international airline because of the pandemic and that he thought the protests were justified.
“The rest of the world has opened up, but only China is stuck with the zero-Covid policy… This city at the moment just feels crazy.”
Police were seen stopping people, with one young man telling AFP he was specifically asked if he had downloaded any foreign apps on his phone — a phenomenon widely reported by others on social media.
Taku said he didn’t think a protest would break out on Wulumuqi street Monday night, but was “looking forward to something happening”.
He added he would not actively join in but would try to photograph arrests if they happened.
An AFP reporter counted 12 police cars within 100 metres along Wulumuqi street.
On Monday, roads that had been closed the evening before were opened again, but filled with police officers.
For several blocks along and around Wulumuqi street, roads were covered with blue metal barriers, which AFP had seen being erected overnight.
A woman of about 30 who worked in a shop nearby said the barriers had affected her business.
“I think the atmosphere is strange, but I don’t feel unsafe,” she said. “I don’t expect any violence to occur.”
Ten minutes’ drive away, the vast People’s Square appeared closed off in the evening
Bars in the vicinity told AFP they had been ordered to close at 10:00 pm (1400 GMT) for “disease control”.
Small clusters of officers in high-vis jackets stood outside each metro exit.
Overall the atmosphere was calm, but AFP saw a group of four policemen surrounding two young men, appearing to search through their bags and check their cameras and phones before they were allowed to move on after five minutes.
When asked, police said their actions were part of a “normal check” and that officers were “regularly” present in such numbers there.
There was a heightened security presence around the city government building near the square, with dozens of police vans and mobile units parked along the road.
Throughout the day, AFP saw officers in the Wulumuqi street area pulling people aside and ordering them to delete photos from their phones.
A young woman of about 20 who was stopped and ordered to delete photos argued: “I’m Chinese. I love my homeland dearly. Why can’t I take a photo of my country’s streets?”
Eventually, she appeared to delete the shots and was allowed to move on.
When asked why one of the people AFP saw detained on Monday had been taken away, an officer said it was “because he didn’t obey our arrangements” and then referred the reporter to local police authorities.
The young man who was released told AFP he had been led away for filming the intersection where the protests had previously occurred.
He was taken to a police van before being promptly let go.
“As a Shanghai citizen, I have the freedom to record this,” he said. “This is Shanghai now. There’s no freedom.”
AFP journalists saw several people detained on Sunday evening as well, and multiple witnesses saw people taken away in earlier protests too.
Shanghai police had not responded on Monday to repeated enquiries about how many people had been detained.