BEIJING — The crowd was hard to make out at first, a After sunset, a dark mass of people huddled together along the Beijing riverbank. People stood silently and almost nervously beside yellowed willows, many bundled in thick coats. At Their center was a Small altar, decorated with candles and Flowers to the 10 people who perished in the accident. a fire in western China Last week.

The crowd had grown to the hundreds two hours later. a Mass of People marching and Chanting for freedom and rule of law, an end of the three-year period of Life here has been hampered by coronavirus restrictions a near standstill. The temperatures were cold, but people stayed there for hours. a Shift change among the officers who watched the entire event on Sunday night.

“We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom!” As they walked westward through one, the protesters shouted of the city’s neatly manicured embassy districts, where a Four Seasons hotel is next to humble shops that sell traditional breakfast crepes. “Freedom of the press! Freedom of publishing!”

It was a rare scene to see in the United States. China, let alone the capital, under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader. The elation was overwhelming. of The moment was fraught with anxiety over what was actually happening. Others urged people to keep their attention on the opposition when they started shouting out explicitly political slogans. Covid controls. The event’s name was determined by who. and when you asked — was it a protest? Or just a vigil?

The uncertainty mirrors the larger uncertainty of At the moment a Potential turning point, not only China’s zero Covid strategy but also Mr. Xi’s rigid grip on the country he leads. Recent protests have erupted in many parts of the country. ChinaFrom Urumqi in western China, where the fire broke, to Shanghai, the east. Excessive behavior of People have been united by the coronavirus restriction like never before in decades. But a One country where dissidents are quickly suppressed and Many people have never been able to protest. They are unsure of what to do or what they can ask for.

The only certainty seemed to be a It makes sense of urgency — that this was a Rare moment that needed to be taken.

The demonstrations in Beijing followed long-simmering discontent. Top of Three years of Daily intrusions of zero CovidMuch, much of The city was underutilized a As infections rose, quasi-lockdown was in effect for several weeks. Many residents have been told not to leave their homes. and Most shops are closed. Only mandatory customers are allowed to stand in long lines. Covid To enter the few remaining public spaces, you will need to pass a series of tests every 48 hours.

Frustration began boiling earlier in the weekend when residents locked up confronted local officials demanding to be freed.

But it was only after protests broke out in other cities — Urumqi on Friday night, Shanghai on Saturday — that mass mobilization seemed possible in Beijing, too. On Sunday, many people seemed shocked that this was even happening. “Should we leave?” People murmured to themselves throughout the evening.

However, mixed with this disbelief was a It makes sense of giddy solidarity with all the other places — Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan and more — where similarly unimaginable explosions of The night was filled with pent-up emotions.

“We are all Shanghai people! We are all Xinjiang people!” People sang.

The feeling of possibility was reinforced by the police response. Although the police presence was increasing throughout the night officers kept their numbers steady. a relative distance — at least for the moment — filming participants but rarely physically engaging the crowds. Many people expected this. a quick and Strenuous suppression and a A common question was, “When will the police make arrests?”

The unknown of Protest was clear even before the gathering. As videos of The demonstrations in other places China Spread on social media, despite the censorship. People began to discuss, in encrypted group chats, on blocked platforms, even though they were not allowed to. ChinaWhere to meet in Beijing A rare protest of Excited students gathered at Tsinghua University (in western Beijing) early Sunday afternoon.

People reported that police were already encircling the proposed spot for the gathering. They speculated that someone had shared the plans via WeChat, a heavily monitored Chinese messaging app. Others tried to communicate with code: “Is anyone planning on going for a walk later?” Even the minutes leading to the scheduled meeting of At 9 p.m. people began sending anxious messages, asking each other if they were still going.

They were. Around 100 people, mostly in their 20s or 30s were seen gathered on northern bank at 9:30 p.m. of The Liangma River is around the altar. While some had traveled alone, most did so in small groups or pairs. Nearly everyone wore the same clothes a Face masks can be used to disguise identities or protect them. It was not clear who organized it. and Members who can travel for long distances of The crowd stood silently, almost in awkward silence. Many simply held their phones high to capture the moment.

Then, somebody began singing “L’Internationale,” The left-wing anthem and Others joined in. “To create mankind’s happiness, we must rely only upon ourselves,” They sang softly, almost tentatively.

“This was really unexpected. When we first arrived, no one was here,” Cecilia Meng, one woman, stated that she believed in her ability to communicate. and Her husband just came out of a You will be locked down for one week at your house that afternoon. The few others around are: “we didn’t know who was one of us.”

After seeing them carrying white blank paper, people approached them. a The term censorship was quickly mentioned as a symbol of The protests. “And then we knew they were our partners.”

As the crowd grew, so did the mood. and It can be from sadness to defiance to humor. One moment. a The woman crying out that her family was from Xinjiang was lamenting for her home. Next, people laughed and called out to each other from the opposite shore. a Crowd had also gathered to swim over.

When a A police officer advised people to stop chanting to end lockdowns. The crowd quickly reacted. “Continue lockdowns!” They chanted in an echo of The internet has been abuzz with sarcasm as people praise the government for censorship. “I want to do Covid tests!”

At certain moments, the protest could have been unfolding anywhere in the world, where people don’t face the dangers of They can speak their minds. “Long live the Sitong Bridge hero,” a As the riverside vigil evolved into the westward march and the focus shifted to the river, small groups began to chant. a A single protester who hung two banners in October from a Beijing overpass denouncing Covid There are restrictions and Appelling for Mr. Xi’s resignation.

However, they were immediately yelled down by others.

“Don’t yell random slogans!” They said.

“We don’t talk about politics! We’re good citizens!” One man shouted his opinion.

This was the main tension of The evening was a success. It was remarkable how bold the demonstrators were. of Its existence. But it was also in many ways hyper conservative, undergirded by the participants’ knowledge of Its fragility. It seemed that every move was made to preserve it as long as possible.

The protestors in Beijing did not name Mr. Xi, unlike in Shanghai on Saturday. The protests in Shanghai turned into more violent confrontations. At least two vehicles were detained by the police. of Witnesses claim that people were affected by the slogans, but it is not clear if they were.

It was the question of hanging on to it all. of What was the point? a A country where people are used to being ruled over, and not responding to. “We know that our requests won’t be answered. We’re just here to express our emotions,” One participant in Beijing argued with an official who interacted with demonstrators about 1 a.m.

“No, there must be an answer!” Others in the crowd shouted immediately. “Solve the problems!”

One attendee, a Filmmaker Wang gave his surname only, saying he didn’t expect much to change. of The protests.

“As Chinese people, our ability to organize is still too weak. We don’t have the experience or the knowledge,” He said. “This” — the ability to gather at all — “is already really hard-won.”

Even though the protest lasted much longer than expected, it could have ended up being brief. It stretched to 2 a.m., the number of Police officers were growing, with many columns of them marching down the street in matching black fur collars. and We need white face masks to help increase the number of people who wear them. of Participants were divided into small groups. A single group. a One woman advised everyone to go together, so no one could be taken apart.

The streets were empty and what was left was, again, uncertainty — about what, if anything, would come next. Monday was quiet as lockdowns were in place. and Covid Although the subway stations were closed, some police officers remained on duty to guard them. and intersections. Online, people discussed plans for another gathering the night. They suggested possible demands that attendees coalesce around. a Urumqi government apologizes

Others worried that police officers might have already entered the group. They had called them asking their whereabouts the night before. Early in the evening, police cars were already lining up around the place where people had gathered that night. There were few people there.