What is happening?
In an extraordinary wave of civil disobedience, dozens of protests broke out across Chinese cities over the weekend as frustrations with the government’s stringent Covid policies boiled over.
Groups of people numbering from single digits to about 1,000 have gathered for candlelit vigils and peaceful street protests. In some places, like Wuhan, they have pushed over pandemic barriers, and in Shanghai, clashed with police. Holding candles, phone lights, and blank pieces of paper, demonstrators have called for the end of lockdowns and frequent mass testing.
Others protests have heard demands for democracy and press freedom, and an end to online censorship. There have also been reported chants echoing the slogans displayed by the Beijing bridge protester on the eve of last month’s Communist party congress political meeting.
How did we get here?
Frustrations with the zero-Covid policy have been rumbling for a while. As the rest of the world returns to something resembling normal life, China’s population is still being subjected to sudden harsh lockdowns of areas ranging from individual shops to entire counties, often over just a few cases.
In September, a bus carrying people to a Guizhou quarantine centre at night crashed, killing 27 people. The death toll dwarfed the two Covid-related deaths reported by the province since the pandemic began. Last month in Zhengzhou thousands of workers in an Apple iPhone factory clashed with riot police and tore down barricades, in part due to Covid restrictions. Across locked down cities, residents also shared rumours and reports of suicides and other deaths they linked to the enforcement of zero-Covid, including a baby and a three-year-old child.
As the list of incidents grew, so too did people’s impatience and skepticism, despite authorities’ attempts to censor information and dissent.
Then last week at least 10 people were killed in a building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which had been under lockdown for about 100 days. People blamed the lockdown for the deaths. Their anger was exacerbated by an official’s response, which appeared to blame the residents for not rescuing themselves, and on Friday the first protests of the weekend were held in the city. Videos showed people in a plaza singing China’s national anthem with its lyric: “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves”.
On Saturday crowds gathered in Shanghai at Middle Urumqi Road – named after the Xinjiang capital. At extraordinary risk, crowds chanted for the Chinese Communist party and leader Xi Jinping to step down. By Sunday a wave of demonstrations expressing both solidarity with Urumqi and local frustrations had spread to cities including capital Beijing, Shanghai again, Chengdu, Wuhan, Lanzhou, Nanjing, and dozens of university campuses.
What are the blank pieces of white A4 paper?
The blank pieces of paper have become a symbol of the burgeoning protests. Space to safely express dissent has been effectively eliminated under the authoritarian rule of Xi and is incredibly risky. The white sheets papers are a nod to the denial of free speech and rampant censorship. A protest at the elite Tsinghua university in Beijing began with one student holding a single sheet near the campus canteen. It was taken away by staff, but she remained in position, according to reports, and was soon joined by dozens, and then hundreds of others.
“The white paper represent everything we want to say but cannot say,” one young protester at Beijing’s Liangma River told Reuters.
Ina video purportedly filmed in Liangmaqiao, Beijing, a woman criticised the state media coverage of the “man-made” tragedy in Urumqi.
“It’s all lies, it’s all silence”, she said.
“We launched the blank paper remembrance movement. Do we say anything on the paper? No. All accusations are in our hearts. All thoughts are in our hearts.”
What is happening to protesters?
Police have detained unknown numbers of protesters, including at least one foreign journalist. The second night of protests in Shanghai was met with a heavy police response, and the BBC said its Shanghai-based cameraman, Edward Lawrence, was detained and beaten before being released. Police said only that they detained him for his own good, in case he caught Covid from the crowd, the BBC said.
In Beijing two groups of protesters, totalling at least 1,000 people, were gathered along the Chinese capital’s 3rd Ring Road near the Liangma River on Sunday night, refusing to disperse. Crowds near Tiananmen Square demanded democracy and rule of law, and decried dictatorships and “personality cults”.
Why are these protests significant?
Observers have said these protests are unlike anything they have seen in decades, perhaps back to the deadly crackdown on student rallies in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“Because they are so synchronised in terms of scope and the size of the crowds across these cities, it’s truly a remarkable development,” says Prof Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. Yang says everyone is relating to incidents like the Urumqi fire and bus crash, because it could happen to any of them.
“All those people have been sharing the same situations – lockdowns, anxieties about jobs and businesses, and various forms of frustrations with medical care, and deaths.”
A modern element of these protests is the pushback against online censorship. China’s internet firewall and armies of information moderators is extraordinarily effective, but has perhaps reached the limits of people’s patience. Citizens are playing cat and mouse with censors, finding creative ways to share videos and posts about the protests, express solidarity, or complain about authorities.
In Beijing protesters called for a return of free expression. “Give movies back, we want cinema freedom. We want free expression. Give media back, give us journalism back.”
As all this is going on, hundreds of thousands of people have been gathering in Qatari stadiums to watch the football World Cup. The throngs of tightly packed, maskless crowds have not gone unnoticed by Chinese fans, despite broadcasters deliberately avoiding crowd shots. Observers have noted that Chinese broadcasters traditionally prepare to “pre-censor” international sports matches, avoiding crowd shots in case someone is holding a politically sensitive flag or similar, but in the current context this practice is now receiving a lot more attention and criticism.
Attempt to control information also spread beyond the firewall, with protest-related hashtags and search topics on Twitter flooded with irrelevant posts containing tourism, advertising, and pornography.
Much of the information sharing has moved away from public networks like Weibo, and into more private – and harder to censor – personal communications like WeChat.
What will happen next?
Protests in China are not rare, but the scale and spread of these ones certainly are. And the ask – an end to stringent zero-Covid – is not something the government is willing to give right now. Eyes now are on whether the protests continue, or even grow, during the week, and how authorities will respond. There will probably be heavy consequences for those identified as protesters.
State media has been silent on the protests but instead has published strongly worded calls to “unswervingly adhere” to zero-Covid.
Yang notes a variation in local authorities’ response to protests so far, with coincidental loosening of restrictions in some areas, and heavy handed police action in others. He also says there are some changes the central government could make to appease people, or they could ease pressure by scapegoating local officials or private companies involved in the pandemic response.
“They could provide much clearer guidance, for example how and when China could exit zero Covid. To this point the messaging has been frustrating and confusing, even to officials,” he says.
“The challenge is this virus is not going away.”