Hundreds of people took to the streets in China's major cities on Sunday to protest against the country's zero-Covid policy, in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state.

China's hardline virus strategy is stoking public frustration, with many growing weary of snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns.

A deadly fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China's Xinjiang region, has become a fresh catalyst for public anger, with many blaming Covid lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts. Authorities deny the claims.

On Sunday night, at least 400 people gathered on the banks of a river in the capital Beijing for several hours, with some shouting: "We are all Xinjiang people! Go Chinese people!"

AFP reporters at the scene described the crowd singing the national anthem and listening to speeches, while on the other side of the canal bank, a line of police cars waited.

Cars honked in support as people remained in the area until the early hours, chanting and waving blank sheets of paper symbolising censorship.

Authorities blocked the road to stop cars passing, and around 100 plainclothes and police officers arrived on the scene.

At around 2:00 am (1800 GMT) they were joined by coaches of paramilitary police.

Eventually protesters agreed to leave after making officers promise their demands had been heard.

- Shanghai clashes -

In downtown Shanghai -- China's biggest metropolis -- AFP saw police clashing with groups of protesters, as officers tried to move people away from the site of an earlier demonstration on Wulumuqi street, named after the Mandarin for Urumqi.

Crowds that had gathered overnight -- some of whom chanted "Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!" -- were dispersed by Sunday morning.

But in the afternoon, hundreds rallied in the same area with blank sheets of paper and flowers to hold what appeared to be a silent protest, an eyewitness told AFP.

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Police officers confront a man as they block Wulumuqi street in Shanghai / © AFP

Social media videos from the area that appeared to be taken in the late afternoon showed the crowd chanting.

By evening, dozens of policemen in yellow high-vis jackets formed a thick line, cordoning off the streets where the protests had taken place.

AFP saw multiple people arrested as officers told demonstrators to leave the area.

A foreigner who wished to remain anonymous told AFP he had seen a standoff as police directed a crowd away from Wulumuqi street.

"The police appeared to be looking for individuals suspected of leading the protests," he said.

"Protesters directed their anger at the police and the party, using the 'step down!' refrain of the last few days."

By midnight the area was calm, though swamped by hundreds of police officers and dozens of cars lining both sides of the road in some places.

Men in hard hats and overalls were erecting tall blue metal barriers on the sides of the street, cutting off the pavement. When asked why, they said they did not know.

In the central megacity of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged, multiple livestreams that were quickly censored showed crowds walking through the streets cheering and filming on their phones.

Footage of protests allegedly taken in major cities Guangzhou and Chengdu was also spreading online Sunday night, but AFP was unable to independently verify the videos.

- University protests -

Earlier in the day, around 200 to 300 students rallied at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University to protest against lockdowns, one witness who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.

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Students protest against China's zero-Covid policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing / © AFP

A video that appeared to be taken in the same location showed students shouting, "Democracy and the rule of law, freedom of expression", and was quickly taken down.

Other vigils took place overnight at universities across China, including one at Tsinghua's neighbour Peking University, an undergraduate participant told AFP.

He said some anti-Covid slogans had been daubed on a wall in the university.

Some of the words echoed a banner that was hung over a Beijing bridge just before the Communist Party Congress in October.

"I heard people yelling: 'No to Covid tests, yes to freedom!'," he said, adding there were between 100 and 200 people there.

Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper.

Hashtags relating to the institute were censored on Weibo, and video platforms Duoyin and Kuaishou were scrubbed of footage.

Videos from campuses in Xi'an, Guangzhou and Wuhan showing similar protests also spread on social media. AFP was unable to verify the footage independently.

- 'Lift lockdowns!' -

China reported 39,506 domestic Covid-19 cases Sunday, a record high but tiny compared to caseloads in the West at the height of the pandemic.

The protests come against a backdrop of mounting public frustration over China's zero-tolerance approach to the virus and follow sporadic rallies in other cities.

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A security guard stops a journalist from taking pictures in front of the entrance gate of Tsinghua University in Beijing / © AFP

Hundreds of people massed outside Urumqi's government offices after the deadly fire, chanting: "Lift lockdowns!", footage partially verified by AFP shows.

AFP verified the video by geolocating local landmarks but was unable to specify exactly when the protests occurred.

It is the latest in several high-profile cases where emergency services have been allegedly slowed down by Covid lockdowns.

The Qatar World Cup has also proved a flashpoint, as scenes of maskless fans provoked outrage on social media.

China's state broadcaster has started cutting close-ups of supporters and replacing them with shots of officials or players.