For almost three years, China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, has bombarded viewers with images of the death and devastation the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought in Europe and the US. By contrast, China’s approach – like its political system – is presented as superior. But on 20 November, CCTV began showing its viewers something else: tens of thousands of maskless football fans happily cheering at the World Cup in Qatar. “Why can they live more freely than Chinese people?” asked an open letter published on the messaging platform WeChat on 22 November, which was widely shared before it was censored. “Are we even living on the same planet as them?”
Two days later, on 24 November, there came the news of a deadly fire at a high-rise block of flats in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in western China, in which at least ten people died. The city had been under lockdown for the past three months as required by the government’s “zero Covid” policy, which aims to contain local outbreaks through mass lockdowns and frequent testing, with residents reportedly largely confined to their compounds. Rumours quickly spread on Chinese social media that firefighters had been unable to get close enough to tackle the fire because the entrances to the compound were blocked by pandemic control barriers. (Local officials have denied this.)
[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]
Frustration with the country’s strict pandemic controls had been building for months. In October, days before a major Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress, a protester hung a banner from a bridge in the capital Beijing demanding “freedom, not lockdowns”. In the southern city of Guangzhou, a key manufacturing hub, people tore down barriers in defiance of lockdown orders earlier in November. On 23 November, riot police crushed protests at the world’s biggest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou in central China. But it was the Urumqi fire, perhaps set against the images on television of life continuing as normal overseas, that brought people out on to the streets across the country.
The demonstrations started in Urumqi on 25 November, where protesters marched through the streets demanding an end to the city’s lockdown. The following day in Shanghai, China’s financial centre, hundreds of people gathered carrying candles and hand-painted signs in memory of the victims of the fire. They began chanting, first for an end to the pandemic controls and then for political change too. “We want freedom,” they shouted. “Xi Jinping, step down!” yelled one group of protesters. By 27 November, the protests had spread to Beijing, and at least ten major cities across the country, including the campuses of the most prestigious universities. At Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater, students chanted, “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression!”
Many protesters held up blank sheets of paper as both a symbol of defiance against the country’s censorship apparatus and an attempt to avoid arrest, following the example of earlier anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. “The white paper represents everything we want to say but cannot say,” a 26-year-old protester in Beijing told Reuters. “We want to live a normal life again. We want to have dignity.”
Small-scale protests in China are not unusual. They generally target local officials or specific issues, with the participants often calling for the central government to help and taking care not to criticise the top echelons of the CCP. By contrast, the latest unrest took place across multiple cities at once and across a wide stratum of social groups. And though the common cause was an end to the interminable lockdowns and the rigid policy that has caused economic growth to stall, it is difficult to separate that policy from the CCP and Xi when he has positioned himself as its greatest defender. He has lauded the party’s approach in waging an “all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus” and urged officials to implement the policy rigorously, telling them “persistence is victory”. It is also hard to imagine how he could shift away from that policy in the near term, even if he wanted to, without risking a public health catastrophe.
China’s previous success in containing the virus has left the population with low levels of natural immunity, while almost a third of people over 60 have yet to receive the third booster dose they need to gain significant protection using the country’s non-mRNA vaccines. The Chinese healthcare system could be rapidly overwhelmed, with scientists warning that one to two million people could die if the restrictions were abruptly lifted. Then there is the political cost. “Xi’s personal stature is directly and inextricably bound up with the success of the zero-Covid policy,” writes Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent essay. “A sudden policy shift is tantamount to admitting failure, which would risk undermining his political authority within the party.”
These protests do not yet represent any serious threat to Xi’s grip on power. By 28 November police officers across the country lined the streets of likely protest sites. Government censors were restricting internet searches for “blank sheet of paper”. There were no signs of a split in the regime elite. The People’s Daily, the main party newspaper, was urging greater efforts to implement the pandemic controls, which it insisted had “withstood the test of practice”. The CCP had already reached for its familiar tools of control, coercion and censorship. In time, there may also be quiet concessions. The crucial test will be whether these protests can be sustained despite those efforts. Only then could they mark the beginning of a real nationwide movement. But that they have happened at all is still remarkable.
[See also: Life under Covid lockdown in Shanghai]
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince