Protests against harsh lockdown rules intensify in China as UK journalist 'beaten and kicked by police' covering unrest

Protests against stringent COVID restrictions have intensified across China - as a British journalist was beaten and kicked by police.

Demonstrators and police clashed in Shanghai on Sunday night, despite being forcibly removed by officers using pepper spray only a few hours earlier.

Sky's Helen-Ann Smith described the atmosphere in Shanghai this morning as "very, very tense", adding that it is not currently safe to film near the main site of the protests due to the police presence.

She said she witnessed a person being "dragged away" from the area and was unsure what he had done.

It marked the third night of chaos which has spread to some of the country's biggest cities, including Wuhan, the first epicentre of the coronavirus almost three years ago.

On Sunday night, the BBC said one of its staff members, Ed Lawrence, was working as an "accredited journalist" when he was "beaten and kicked by police" while covering the protests.

Footage on social media showed him being dragged to the ground in cuffs, while in another video, he was seen saying: "Call the consulate now."

According to officials, Mr Lawrence was arrested "for his own good" in case he caught COVID from the crowd, but the BBC said it was "extremely concerned" about his treatment and claimed he was held for several hours before being released.

China's foreign ministry said Mr Lawrence did not identify himself as a journalist and that the BBC's statement "does not reflect what happened".

Business Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News that there can be "absolutely no excuse" for journalists covering the protests being beaten by police.

While Downing Street said the arrest of a BBC journalist in China was "shocking and unacceptable".

The PM's official spokesperson said: "The arrest of this journalist who was simply going about their work is shocking and unacceptable. Journalists must be able to do their jobs without fear of intimidation."

He also urged the Chinese authorities to "respect those who decide to express their views about the current situation", adding: "We will continue to raise our human rights concerns with the Chinese government at all levels as part of a frank, constructive relationship."

A Sky News team in Shanghai had witnessed police moving quickly and decisively, pushing protesters to try to disperse them - but the crowd did not leave.

They also saw several people on the streets of Shanghai being arrested by police on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, protests against President Xi Jinping's zero-COVID lockdown policy have spread outside the Far East, with between 100 and 300 people gathering outside the Chinese Embassy in London.

A woman from a group called China Deviants told Sky News they had decided to voice their anger against President Xi's regime because "people in China are being oppressed".

She added: "We have been oppressed for years, for decades, and we want to change that. We need to stand up against this authoritarian regime."

She said, like many of her fellow countrymen and women in China, their anger had boiled over after a fire in the city of Urumqi on Thursday, which killed at least 10 people.

The city has been under harsh lockdowns for more than three months to combat the spread of the coronavirus under China's "zero-COVID" policy.

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Videos on social media showed an arc of water from a distant fire truck falling short of the blaze, sparking waves of angry comments online. Some said fire engines had been blocked by pandemic control barriers or by cars stranded after their owners were put in quarantine, but this has not been verified.

The woman, who covered her face for fear of punishment, said: "It sparked rage. We stand up to raise voices for those people. We stand for justice."

China Deviants is a non-profit group and is calling for others to join them to "reject dictatorship".

A statement from the group said: "We are committed to awakening the Chinese people against the dictator, letting the Chinese people and the international community realise that: a non-elected government cannot represent the voice of the Chinese people.

"We need democracy and freedom, and we reject dictatorship."

As protesters returned to Shanghai, Amnesty International described their move as one of "remarkable bravery".

China is adhering to its tough zero-COVID policy even while much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

The country recorded 40,347 new COVID-19 infections on Monday, including 36,525 with no symptoms.