Last weekend, violent protests against the Chinese government’s strict zero COVID policy and Chinese President Xi Jinping roiled the nation. In Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and other major Chinese cities, protesters took to the streets to demand a reversal of their government’s stringent COVID-19 measures.
Chinese authorities were quick to crack down; police presence was intensified and there was no sign of fresh protests Monday, November 28th. Yet, these events could mark a significant shift in mood of what had previously been considered a largely compliant citizenry.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian downplayed what had occurred, however. On Monday, he told reporters that “what you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened,” and asked them to “believe that with the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CCP), and cooperation and support of the Chinese people, our fight against COVID-19 will be successful.”
In recent weeks, China has been experiencing a record surge in infection numbers, which ‘forced’ it to increase its efforts in trying to curb the spread, bringing even more disruption to the world’s second-largest economy. According to analysts, China will not be reopening before March or April, as the government wants to implement a new vaccination campaign first.
For three years now, the CCP has held fast to its zero-COVID policy. In addition to mandatory testing, its most infamous aspect is the draconian lockdowns.
While the overall wisdom of this approach is debatable, its rollback could mean a personal defeat for President Xi Jinping, ever a vocal advocate of the policy.
While his foreign ministry spokesman loyally reiterated the party’s line, it is also indicative of how tone-deaf the CCP has become. Without any modification of its approach to COVID, politically speaking, the situation might soon become dangerous.
Indeed, because of the lockdowns, the Chinese citizenry is often prevented from going out for work or even from buying food.
It is a policy that has resulted in tragedy, like the one which occurred last Thursday, November 24, in Urumqi, a city in the western region of Xinjiang. Locked inside after authorities had sealed the doors, residents could not leave their apartment building as it was on fire. Ten people perished in the blaze. Some had been locked in their apartments for 4 months.
News about the event quickly spread across the country, triggering a wider anti-government movement not seen since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In Shanghai, people were—considering the surveillance apparatus the CCP has at its disposal, putting themselves at great risk—shouting slogans like “Resign, Xi Jinping! Resign, Communist Party!” Given China’s 1,452 billion-strong population, it is however uncertain to what degree these sentiments are shared by fellow countrymen.
While reporting is frustratingly scant, these protests stand out for how unusually violent they are, as many videos posted online attest to. In Wuhan, where the COVID pandemic had its origin, the number of protesters appears to be the most sizable.
Others opt for a more peaceful approach and are seen carrying a blank white sheet of paper, often held aloft—a symbol of everything they want to say but cannot because of government censorship. Such public demonstrations of civil disobedience happened mostly on Chinese campuses, or during vigils for the victims of the apartment fire in Urumqi.
It is from that city (in what is a semi-autonomous region within China) that this form of protest has been spreading. Yet, these sheets of paper first popped up in the aftermath of the 2019 demonstrations in Hong Kong against a strict security law introduced the previous year.
Suddenly, and in typical CCP fashion, slogans and other texts referring to these mass protests were banned. The people of Hong Kong, however, found a creative solution to being muzzled. These blank sheets acted as a quiet, yet most potent, denouncement of censorship.
They also poke fun at Chinese authorities, taunting them to arrest individuals holding pieces of paper upon which nothing subversive is written.
Equally active in the online sphere, the government there, too, tries to curb the spread. Any mention of “white paper” or “blank sheet of paper” has already been filtered out on social media like Weibo.
Meanwhile, foreign, on-the-ground journalists reporting on the events are not treated kindly by Chinese authorities, as BBC journalist Edward Lawrence experienced. During his arrest for unknown reasons, while filming in Shanghai, he was manhandled by police. The UK government called Lawrence’s arrest a “considerable concern.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian commented that China “always welcomes foreign journalists to report in the country in accordance with the law and has provided lots of assistance,” but that “at the same time, foreign journalists should comply with Chinese regulations when they are reporting in China.”
Yet, for all condemnations of the CCP’s overreach by Western media outfits and public institutions, citizens in the western part of the world would be well-advised to remember that only a few years ago, anti-lockdown protests were treated in, if not in the exact same manner, a disturbingly similar one.
Those who participated were almost universally smeared, as they saw themselves being labeled “far right,” “anti-vax,” “conspiracy theorists,” or worse. At times, and not each western country was guilty of this, the smearing went hand in hand with suppression through violent means.
Meanwhile, the Chinese model of how to deal with the pandemic was being hailed by some high officials, like Neil Ferguson from the UK’s prestigious Imperial College, and pointed to as an example the West would do well to emulate.
It remains to be seen whether these large-scale protests in China will flare up again, and if so, like in Tiananman, they force the CCP’s hand and end in tragic massacre—a fate western citizens protesting their governments’ own flavor of COVID measures thus far have managed to evade.