Patience running out in China over COVID lockdowns - and it poses major challenge to ruling Communist party

To see people protesting in the streets in China is incredibly rare.

To have those protests accompanied by shouts of "down with the CPP (Chinese Communist Party)" and "down with President Xi" is almost unheard of.

But that was exactly what happened in the streets of Shanghai on Saturday night, a gathering that started with just 100 or so people grew as word spread, the videos circulated widely on Chinese social media before the censors rushed to take them down.

The challenge for the ruling CPP feels significant and it is not just the boldness of the chants that will be causing alarm.

It's the fact that it is now one of many such protests springing up.

It's the fact that it was not in response to something local, but something that happened thousands of miles away on the other side of the country.

And, perhaps most importantly, it's the fact that the underlying cause of the agitation, the zero-COVID agenda, is something being experienced by every single Chinese citizen.

It is hard to see exactly how this wave of anger is quashed without some sort of radical action.

The spark for the Shanghai protest was a fire in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang, a province on the far west side of this vast country.

Ten people, including children, died. It's alleged a coronavirus lockdown prevented them from leaving the building and prevented firefighters from getting speedy access.

The province of Xinjiang has been experiencing a particularly harsh lockdown, lasting more than three months, with people in some places unable to leave their homes even to buy food.

Protests erupted there on Friday night.

This is particularly extraordinary as the province of Xinjiang is one of the most tightly policed and heavily surveilled places in the whole of China.

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The Uyghur Muslim minority there have experienced years of brutal oppression, with hundreds of thousands detained in camps.

It seems the fire and subsequent outrage and bravery of people in Urumqi has struck a nerve across this country and offered a catalyst of sorts for simmering frustration and weariness.

In addition to Shanghai there have been protests overnight at a university campus in Nanjing, Wuhan and Beijing, while in recent days and weeks people have taken to the streets and clashed with police in places from Guangzhou to Zhengzhou.

There is a sense patience is running out.

The zero-COVID policy, initially lauded here for keeping people safe in comparison to the high death numbers in America and Europe, is now wearing people down.

Many Chinese have watched the opening World Cup matches on television and are wondering why the rest of the world is getting on with life, gathering unmasked in large stadiums, while they risk being locked in their homes at short notice or having their businesses shut down and unable to trade.

People's lives here are still dominated by the need to be constantly tested, they are unable to enter public places without it, and they could at any time get stuck inside a place linked to a positive case.

Millions across multiple cities are still living under some form of COVID-19 lockdown.

There is a sense the government is aware of the anger and the cost to people.

Just a few weeks ago it called for the COVID response to be "optimised", with more targeted measures such quarantining just the building with infected people and not whole areas.

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But this country is facing record numbers of COVID infections and the underlying facts remains that the population has low levels of community immunity and the hospital system is under-resourced and would quickly become overwhelmed.

However, make no mistake, the sheer number of protests breaking out hasn't been seen in years here, maybe even decades.

It poses a major challenge for the ruling Communist Party.

It is a regime that values stability above all else and has retained its legitimacy by ensuring that what people don't have in terms of free speech and democracy is outweighed by what they do have in terms of financial security, social order, safety and the ability to get on with their lives.

But it feels that delicate balance is now under significant strain.

It is unclear how the party will respond.

It could turn to a heavy-handed militarised approach if dissent continues to spread, although that brings its own risks.

Or it could opt to loosen some COVID measures.

But that potentially opens the door not only to a serious coronavirus outbreak and rising deaths, but also emboldening people that protest might work in future.

It's important not to get carried away here.

There are many millions of people in China who support the CCP ardently and believe the zero-COVID is the right policy.

It's control of state and society is also so deep and ingrained that any talk of this somehow toppling its rule is almost certainly naive.

But what is happening in China right now is nonetheless extraordinary, levels of public anger and dissent that haven't been seen in many years.

The current trajectory feels increasingly untenable.