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Coronavirus

In Rare Challenge, Chinese Youth Defy Government On COVID Lockdowns

On social media and at universities, with sarcastic videos and graffiti, young people are showing they are sick and tired of Zero COVID policies. People are still waiting to see how the Xi Jinping regime might react.

Photo of a young man wearing a COVID-19 protective mask, walking in Changzhou, China, on March 19​

Walking in Changzhou, China, on March 19

BEIJING — Since March, mainland China has experienced the largest local outbreak of COVID-19 cases since the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, in January 2020. According to the National Health Commission of China, between March 1 and 18, more than 29,000 infections have been reported in mainland China, affecting 28 provinces. Restrictions and lockdown measures were introduced in various provinces, but the “Zero COVID” policies are facing rising dissent among the population.

The concerns have largely been economic-related: A post on Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) summarizes people’s complaint, “the landlord is telling me to pay the rent, the banks are telling me to repay loans, the state is telling me not to go to work, the government is telling me not to go out, the whole country is telling me to carry on, but no one is telling me where the money is supposed to come from.”

Demands for lifting measures spread across the nation via TikTok videos and social media posts, countering the tight regulations and the state’s endeavor to secure the “Zero COVID” campaign.


For the country's young population, social media and universities have been the major site of such demonstrations against control from the top. A new genre of “COVID literature” is becoming trendy for young people online to raise their complaints subtly within the delicate media environment with creative rewrites such as “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found his neighborhood was now under lockdown...” While in universities, where harsh lockdown orders were imposed on students, the youth are combating the administration with bold gestures for their freedom.

Photo of graffiti at a university campus in China which reads \u201cI want to be a free university student.\u201d

Graffiti at a university campus in China which reads “I want to be a free university student.”

Weibo

COVID 1984

On Wednesday, students of Sichuan University in southwestern China caught the public attention for their “successful coup d’etat” on pressuring the school to lift what they said were unreasonably harsh measures. Like many other universities in China, the school introduced a three-week lockdown on campus, but restrictions only applied to its 65,000 students, while the region was already acknowledged to be low-risk.

Leadership condemned the movement as “influence of foreign forces.”

Students expressed their resentment with graffiti and banners around the campus, and their heated discussion on social media have reached more than 210 million reads on Weibo alone.

Slogans such as “COVID 1984”, “SCU is made of students and teachers, not bureaucrats”, “This is the final struggle, stay united and fight against bureaucracy” circulated around the university. And even with leadership condemning the movement as “influence of foreign forces”, the students did not back down.

The anger finally got the attention of the provincial administration with state interference and students gaining their “victory” on terminating the lockdown.

Photo of a red banner at Sichuan University (SCU) which reads \u201cSCU is of its students and teachers, not bureaucrats\u201d

Banner at Sichuan University (SCU) which reads “SCU is of its students and teachers, not bureaucrats”

Weibo

No sign of change despite upcoming wave

Similar “movements” could be found across China in universities and social media. Even though there is still considerable acknowledgement of “China’s pledge to beat the virus,” it is evident that after two years of such a campaign, the Zero-COVID campaign is losing its supporters nationwide.

In the two years of the global epidemic, for many Chinese, the memory of the outbreak remains contained in the first three months of 2020. The Chinese government's strict control policy isolated people's perception and awareness of the outbreak. With the Omicron variant extending over China, questions about the virus and measures are surfacing once again, with a huge information gap between the public's knowledge of the COVID-19 virus and that of other countries where "co-existence" strategies have been implemented.

At a time when global epidemic preparedness policy has become highly ideological, as Hong-Kong-based digital media The Initium notes, China is sticking to its established policy to preserve the gains it has made, which is promoted as the superiority of the Chinese model.

At the same time, China has been fearing the "worst case scenario" of a nationwide surge in cases and an out-of-control health care system that would even threaten social stability.

Up to this point, there is no sign of significant change in China's actions tackling the new COVID wave. On March 17, Xi Jinping stressed at a meeting of the Central Political Bureau that the prevention and control of the epidemic should continue to adhere to the general policy of "Zero COVID." Experts also say that a rapid liberation of China's pandemic prevention policy could cause a run on medical resources .

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