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How China's Mass Protest Took The World By Surprise — And Where It Will End

China is facing its biggest political protests in decades as frustration grows with its harsh Zero-COVID strategy. However, the real reasons for the protests run much deeper. Could it be the starting point for a new civic movement?

Photo of police during protests in China against covid-19 restrictions

Security measures during a protest against COVID-19 restrictions

Changren Zheng

In just one weekend, protests spread across China. A fire in an apartment block in Urumqi in China’s western Xinjiang region killed 10, with many blaming lockdown rules for the deaths. Anti-lockdown demonstrations spread to Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chengdu and other cities. University students from more than half of China's provinces organized various protests against COVID restrictions.

Why and how did the movement spread so rapidly?

At the core, protesters are unhappy with President Xi Jinping's three-year-long Zero-COVID strategy that has meant mass testing, harsh lockdowns, and digital tracking. Yet, the general belief about the Chinese people was that they lacked the awareness and experience for mass political action. Even though discontent had been growing about the Zero-COVID strategy, no one expected these protests.

Surprisingly, protesters were not scared off by state censorship or police crackdowns. Individual local authorities responded by partially loosening measures.

A quality of life question

At first, Communist slogans such as "To serve the people" were chanted by protesters. But these turned into "the state is responsible for all of this." On Saturday in Shanghai, an event escalated into a protest with stronger slogans: "No dictatorship but freedom", "down with the Communist Party" and "Xi Jinping step down".

The protest was also about the loss of quality of life. The slogan "Chinese cinema is dead" could be heard, for instance. Government control and censorship have led to cinemas closing down, and more than 90% of the films shown this last year have been quasi-propaganda movies. Alongside this are growing demands for freedom of the press and freedom of expression, which is quite rare to hear in China.

Photo of candles being lit for the victimes who died in a fire due to China's zero-Covid policy

Mourning the victimes of the fire that happened in Urumqi


The timing of CCP's 20th Congress

The demonstrations are happening after the Chinese Communist Party's 20th Congress, when President Xi was elected for the third term.

Chinese have been willing to accept the gradual loss of rights to maintain security and economic gains.

It is not that there are were no people who opposed China's COVID control policies, but the online discontent was mostly focused on individual suffering, and arguably never formed a real movement.

For a long time, the Chinese have generally accepted the role of the government as protector, which asserts its legitimacy through economic performance. The Chinese have been willing to accept the gradual loss of rights to maintain security and economic gains.

Three years with COVID, however, means an economic recession is no longer a close threat but an ongoing reality. Xi Jinping has insisted on "the supremacy of the people and life". So, the government guarantees you life, but you have nothing to live for. People are essentially in prisons, with no consideration given to their non-biological needs. And this is the central controversy of pandemic control policies: which is more important? To live or to have a life?

Opposition to "Zero-COVID" has become a fight against tyranny and a possible starting point for China's civic movement.

Shared demands 

The main demands concern people's livelihoods and the economy under COVID restrictions. These cannot be immediately solved. What's more, the reasons behind the protests are not what they first seem.

The "Blank paper protests", in which students from universities in southern China held up A4 sheets, clearly transcend dissatisfaction with COVID restrictions. Behind these pieces of blank paper is the reality of harsh censorship, which gives it the potential to become a political movement. At the spontaneous rallies to commemorate victims in Urumqi, there were also those who mourned for Chinese cinema, in effect mourning the loss of quality of life on the grounds of "saving lives".

The protests in Shanghai showed possibly uniting demands from all over the country, and since then Beijing, Wuhan and other cities in China have joined in.

We can't just look at the economy. The problem is always a political one.

What is happening now would have been unthinkable not long ago. In the last decade of Xi Jinping's rule, "resistance" as an explicit slogan was only used in Hong Kong in 2019. Sadly, neither Hong Kong nor the Mainland realized at the time their shared struggles because both were trapped in information cocoons. This is a result of the gradual fragmentation of life between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It is fair to say that a certain political turning point is now closer than ever.

Photo of protesters in China holding up signs

A protester holds up a sign while another holds a blank piece of paper during a demonstration

Ben Marans/SOPA/Zuma

Xi's reminder

In his first two terms, Xi Jinping tested the waters of nationalist and populist discourses, trying to reshape the image of the Communist Party by moving closer to the "people" and further tightening his control on public opinion. At the same time, economic growth has been slowing down.

After removing the priority of "economic growth" from the Chinese Communist Party's agenda, he is relying on socialist-style redistribution reform to avoid losing more support. But the tightening of social control and the growing conservatization of ideology are being undermined by unique challenges.

As seen in recent events, the ineptitude of government administrations and the limits of medical resources were exposed by a weakening economy and the Zero-COVID strategy. Even so, the regime refuses to change, a result of the inertia of an all-powerful government and bureaucracy.

How could China evolve in such an environment? What is certain is that the movement will not result in any easy solution. To quote President Xi himself: "We can't just look at the economy. The problem is always a political one."

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