Fears compete with 'freedom' calls at China protests

STORY: "Down with the Chinese communist party! Down with Xi Jinping!"

These were normally unspeakable words recently chanted by demonstrators in Shanghai at a protest against strict COVID restrictions, one of the many such eruptions that have taken global headlines.

But other protesters were quick to rebuke these kind of chants.

One lead protesters in Beijing told the crowd not to get too riled up.

It highlights the difficulties of gauging the mood at these protests, where every demonstrator knows cameras are on them - in a country where space for dissent is very narrow.

"We don't want to oppose any party, we don't care what it is, but we want to live."

These are scenes repeated across the country, according to social media posts and witness accounts.

John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at South Korea's Yonsei University says there are all kinds of hidden disagreements that are latent within Chinese society.

"It’s a state-controlled media that’s always supposed to reinforce one line and one message. So, we actually, over the weekend, got a taste of where some of the disagreements, differences of opinion might exist within the Chinese society if it could speak openly.”

Protesters fed-up with Xi's zero-COVID policy pushed the boundaries by speaking for change in a country where a space for dissent has narrowed dramatically under President Xi Jinping's increasingly authoritarian rule.

One word that cropped up time and again in the protests was "Ziyou", which means freedom.

It can be interpreted as a demand for release from COVID curbs or a call for political freedom, and thus a challenge to the leadership.

Analysts say Xi has championed the zero-COVID policy, so even focused criticism of just the COVID curbs is also criticism of his leadership.

People sought to protect themselves during these protests by criticizing a policy and its impact, but not the leader and the government behind it, at least not directly.

Demonstrators also stressed that no "foreign forces" or "organizations" were behind them and they had turned out spontaneously, according to a Reuters witness.

China blamed pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 in part on foreign meddling.

The government has announced the easing of COVID restricts this week but it is unclear if the easing of it will take the fire out of the frustrations.

"These are demonstrations in affluent areas in the core cities of the country, in the capital Beijing, in the commercial center, Shanghai, in sophisticated cities like Hangzhou and Chengdu. And if they hit hard right now on these groups, they’re just going to cut deeper into a bone in the society that I think even this all-powerful surveillance state is hesitant to do.”