Protests in China against government’s strict Covid measures have intensified, with some people publicly venting their anger at the Communist Party leaders.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Shanghai, where the BBC saw people being bundled into police cars.
Students have also demonstrated at universities in Beijing and Nanjing.
The latest unrest follows a protest in the remote north-west city of Urumqi, where lockdown rules were blamed after 10 people died in a tower block fire.
While Chinese authorities deny that Covid restrictions caused the deaths, officials in Urumqi did issue an unusual apology late on Friday, and pledged to “restore order” by phasing out restrictions.
‘Xi Jinping, step down’
At the protest in Shanghai – China’s biggest city and a global financial hub in the east of the country – people were heard openly shouting slogans such as “Xi Jinping, step down” and “Communist party, step down”.
Some held blank white banners, while other lit candles and laid flowers for the victims in Urumqi.
Such demands are an unusual sight within China, where any direct criticism of the government and the president can result in harsh penalties.
But analysts say the government appears to have drastically underestimated growing discontent towards the zero-Covid approach, a policy inextricably linked to Xi Jinping who recently pledged there would be no swerving from it.
Shocking protests present huge challenge for China’s leaders
One protester in Shanghai told the BBC that he felt “shocked and a bit excited” to see people out on the streets, calling it the first time he’d seen such large-scale dissent in China.
He said lockdowns made him feel “sad, angry and hopeless”, and had left him unable to see his unwell mother, who was undergoing cancer treatment.
A female demonstrator told the BBC police officers were asked how they felt about the protests, and the answer was “the same as you”. But, she said, “they wear their uniforms so they’re doing their job.”
Others gave accounts of violence, with one protester telling the Associated Press news agency one of his friends had been beaten by police at the scene, while two others had been pepper sprayed.
Though the situation in the area had calmed by Sunday morning, the BBC saw a heightened police presence in the area of the protest, with several dozen police officers, private security guards and plain-clothed police officers on the streets.
Elsewhere, photos and videos emerged online of students holding vigils for the Urumqi fire victims and launching protests at universities in Beijing and Nanjing.
Hundreds of people took part in one such demonstration in Tsinghua University in the capital, one student told the AFP news agency.
The group held up blank sheets of paper – an act which has become a symbol of defiance against Chinese censorship – and were filmed chanting songs in support of freedom and democracy.
Videos of the protests are difficult to independently verify, but many of them show an unusually explicit and outspoken criticism of the government and its leader.
Protest unusual in criticising President Xi
Tessa Wong, Asia Digital Reporter
The Urumqi fire was a nightmare scenario for many Chinese who have come under widespread restrictions in recent months – locked in one’s apartment with no way to escape, according to some accounts. Authorities have disputed this, but it has not stopped public outrage and anxiety from spreading.
It has become the latest tipping point in mounting frustration. Millions are weary of three years of movement restrictions and daily Covid tests. The anger has spread to all corners of China, from major cities to far flung regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, and galvanised every part of society including young university students, factory workers, and ordinary citizens.
As this anger grows, protests against Covid measures have become an increasingly common sight. But even this weekend’s demonstrations are unusual in this new normal, both in their numbers and directness of their criticism of the government and President Xi Jinping.
Taking to the streets en masse with hundreds calling for President Xi to step down was thought to be unthinkable not so long ago. But after a recent dramatic protest on a Beijing bridge that stunned many, a bar appears to have been set for the expression of more open and sharper dissent.
Others have also chosen to wave the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem – its lyrics espousing revolutionary ideals and urging the people to “rise up, rise up”. It’s a show of patriotism that could also be read as a pointed expression of solidarity with fellow Chinese suffering under Mr Xi’s zero-Covid policy – and a call to action.