Taipei, Taiwan and Beijing, China – When Ivan joined a vigil in Shanghai on November 27 to memorialise the 10 victims of an apartment block fire in the far western city of Urumqi, he did not know what to expect.

The gathering – held on a busy commercial street named after the Xinjiang capital – was the young professional’s first “real” protest.

What began as a tiny gathering to remember the dead soon swelled into a crowd, as hundreds of people protested COVID-19 lockdowns amid claims that pandemic restrictions had stymied efforts to rescue the victims.

As the crowd grew in size, some protesters called for political reforms and even the resignation of President Xi Jinping – an act of defiance almost unheard of since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

“The emotion quickly escalated when people were chanting together,” Ivan, an IT professional in his 30s who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera.

“I was surprised, thrilled and a little bit scared. It was a complicated and mixed feeling. My eyes misted for a while and I told my friends it has been 33 years since the last protest that was not only about the protesters’ personal interests”.

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