By Simone McCarthy and Kathleen Magramo, CNN
Residents under Covid lockdown in China’s southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou have torn down barriers meant to confine them to their homes, taking to the streets in defiance of strictly enforced local orders, according to video and images circulating on social media.
Some of the images show large crowds cheering and surging across toppled barriers and filling streets after dark in the city’s Haizhu district, which has been under an increasingly restrictive lockdown since November 5, as the epicenter of the city’s ongoing Covid outbreak.
The clanging sound of metal barriers falling reverberates across the neighborhood and mingles with cheers in the footage, in scenes multiple social media users said took place late Monday evening on district streets.
In one video, Covid workers in protective medical wear can be seen standing on the sidelines as barriers fall, while trying to speak with people on the streets. “They’re revolting,” a woman’s voice is heard saying in the background of one of the videos. CNN has geolocated the images to Haizhu district, but could not independently confirm them.
It is not clear how many people were involved in the protest, or how long it lasted. Related posts were swiftly scrubbed from the Chinese internet by censors.
When CNN reached the phone line of the Haizhu District government office, a phone operator said that the area was still “largely closed off”.
When asked whether protests took place in recent days, the operator declined to answer.
The public protest — an exceedingly rare event in China, where authorities keep tight control over dissent — appears as yet another sign of the mounting public anger and desperation over the government’s stringent zero-Covid policies.
The scenes in Guangzhou, which reported over 5,100 new Covid cases on Tuesday — the vast majority asymptomatic — come as Beijing’s unrelenting drive to stamp out the spread of the virus faces questions of sustainability, amid fast-spreading new variants.
Surge in cases
China is experiencing a surge in infections nationwide, this time fueled by simultaneous outbreaks across multiple cities, where control measures are stretching residents and local authorities to the brink.
On Tuesday, China’s National Health Commission reported more than 17,772 new Covid cases across the country, its highest total since April 2021, with Guangzhou, a city of 19 million, accounting for more than a quarter of those.
Last week, the city placed three districts including Haizhu under lockdown in a bid to stem the spread, imposing a raft of restrictions’ on residents’ movements and business activity. That was followed in recent days by additional measures on neighborhoods designated “high risk.”
Zhang Yi, deputy director of the Guangzhou municipal health commission, told a news conference Monday that “pandemic containment measures” will be “enhanced” — a veiled reference for lockdowns — in the entirety of Liwan and Panyu districts, as well as parts of Haizhu and Yuexiu districts.
The rising case numbers and accompanying controls have pushed more residents across China to question the costs of the brute-force measures employed by authorities to stamp out cases, which include mandatory quarantining close contacts of Covid patients, mass testing, and lockdowns that can see people confined to their districts, neighborhoods or apartments — sometimes for months on end.
Top officials in Beijing, including Chinese leader Xi Jinping, have pledged that the measures should be balanced with economic and social interests. Authorities last week revised the policy, including discouraging unnecessary mass testing and overly zealous classification of restricted “high risk” areas.
They also largely scrapped the quarantining of secondary close contacts and reduced the time close contacts must spend in central quarantine — all changes officials insist are not a relaxation but a refinement of the policy.
Those measures came as Xi prepared for a week of diplomacy attending summits in Southeast Asia in a signal that China was ready to return to the world stage, with Xi meeting with key Western leaders in person this month for the first time since the pandemic began.
But for the citizens back home who are trapped in lockdown, recurring issues like accessing prompt medical care or enough food and supplies, or losing work and income — have over and over again led to hardship and tragedy, including numerous deaths believed to be linked to delayed access to medical care.
Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, where images showed nighttime protests, is home to a number of migrant workers living in densely packed buildings in areas known as “urban villages.”
Their circumstances can compound the hardship of the oppressive measures as the true number of residents needing supplies in a given housing block may be unclear to officials delivering goods. There’s also no option of remote work to preserve income for those employed in factories and on construction sites.
In messages shared on social media, observers noted hearing Haizhu residents originally from outside Guangzhou pleading for help from officials such as compensation for rent and free supplies.
In a video circulating on social media, a man can be heard screaming “Us Hubei people want to eat! Us Hubei people want to be unsealed!” referring to another province in China, where many migrant workers in the district come from. He is part of a crowd that’s gathered facing a Covid workers in hazmat suits.
In a separate clip of the same scene, another man asks the workers: “If your parents have gone sick, how would you feel? If your children are suffering from fever and prevented from leaving (for the hospital), how would you feel?”
People in another video can be heard shouting out their frustrations and desperation to a man who identifies himself as the neighborhood director and says he wants to address their concerns. One resident rushes forward to say that as non-local residents they’re left to queue for hours for Covid-19 testing and the meat sold to them by the government has gone bad, while they can’t get through to local support hotlines.
“Nobody came to explain and the community’s office line is always busy. And our landlord doesn’t care if we live or die. What should we do?” the resident says, while the other members of the crowd start to shout together: “Unseal! Unseal!”
In the city news conference Monday, a Haizhu district official acknowledged criticisms that restrictions could have been announced earlier and with more clarity on areas affected by the measures.
“We have also realized many of our shortcomings,” said Su Mingqing, a deputy head of Haizhu district.
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CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.