As the world abandoned pandemic restrictions earlier this year, China doubled down on its strategy to eliminate the coronavirus within its borders. In the name of “zero covid”, 1.4 billion Chinese citizens have faced a grim reality: a third year of strict confinements, relentless testing, long quarantines and constant monitoring of their movements.
Now a lot of people are pushing back.
Mass protests have spread across China over the past month – from manufacturing hubs to universities, cities and minority regions in the Far West, with more than a dozen sites verified by The Washington Post. In extraordinary scenes, citizens gathered despite the significant risk of arrest. They called for their country to be “liberated”, not only from the government’s pandemic policies, but also from its extensive control over their lives.
This is a wave of dissent and political mobilization unprecedented in China since the Tiananmen protests in 1989 that swept the country before finally being crushed by a brutal crackdown. Like those protests, the current outpouring is a mix of frustration, anger and demands for change that has been building for months, if not years. Under an increasingly repressive system, “zero covid” has become an incendiary symbol.
People behind a gate in a controlled neighborhood in Shanghai on November 7. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News) Boxes of local government food are unloaded for distribution during the April coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images) Residential units in Shanghai during the April lockdown. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
In March, authorities imposed a lockdown on the city of Shanghai, placing its 25 million residents under de facto house arrest for two months. Residents struggled to get food or medical help and shouted from their windows for someone to help them. Some people have died of conditions unrelated to covid-19, after being unable to get medical attention.
Wang Huiting was in town at the time, working at an online food delivery company and caring for her critically ill mother as she battled ovarian cancer. The 29-year-old said she tried for almost two weeks to get her mother to hospital. But she couldn’t get an ambulance, and without one the two women weren’t allowed to leave their residential compound.
Wang watched helplessly as her mother’s condition worsened and the fluid in her abdomen accumulated. A doctor pointed her to an online video showing how it could be drained. She practiced on a bag of saline several times before trying it out for real, draining as much as she could from her mother’s body. Two days later, she finally secured the ambulance. Her mother, 54, died three days later in hospital.
“I did my best,” Wang said. “It was a man-made disaster. Whether you’re sick or need medicine, they don’t care.
Signs of discontent
The lockdown in Shanghai was one of many across the country that eroded confidence in the government’s pandemic policy, once a point of pride for China.
As it dragged on, residents hung protest banners there and banged pots on their balconies to signal their misery. They began to push back, sometimes clashing with local police trying to force them out of their homes so the buildings could be turned into quarantine centers. In April, a censored video of some of the most desperate lockdown moments was the subject of an online protest. Netizens rushed to post new iterations on social media.
Elsewhere, students at universities in Tianjin, Shanghai and Beijing also began resisting measures that confined them to their dormitories for weeks. In May, students at Peking University, China’s top school, rallied against administrators who had tried to erect a wall sealing off one of the dormitories.
Growing public anger
Despite government censorship, stories of growing hardship and collateral deaths linked to coronavirus controls have made their way into even the most closed parts of the country. The same goes for news of budding protests.
Hundreds of people in Lhasa, the capital of the tightly controlled Tibet Autonomous Region, took to the streets in October after nearly two months of lockdown. Some had been confined to their homes or forced into isolation centers in conditions that rivaled the situation in Shanghai.
“Nobody knows what’s happening in Lhasa, and we don’t know what’s happening elsewhere,” said Dorje Gyaltshen, a 26-year-old Tibetan restaurateur who has been stuck in his small rental room for more than 80 days. . “Isn’t it natural that people get fed up and demand change when they’re locked up and treated like animals?” He asked.
The protester, disguised as a construction worker, hung two large banners from Sitong Bridge, an overpass in Beijing. They called Xi “a dictator and a national traitor”. They said, “We want freedom, not lockdowns.”
The congress ended with no sign that the country’s leaders would soon ease government measures against coronaviruses. Instead, they pledged an “unwavering” commitment to them. An already slowing economy has slowed further and companies have been ordered to stamp out coronavirus infections by closing their factories. At the massive Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, which makes half of the world’s Apple iPhones, thousands of workers fled and others protested against conditions meant to limit the spread of the virus.
A deadly fire
A fire has ignited the protests seen in recent days. The fire broke out on November 24 in Urumqi, the capital of northwest Xinjiang, a region where pandemic controls have been among the strictest. Seven adults and three children died.
Residents accused firefighters of being slow to respond and blamed coronavirus restrictions. Officials denied this, but many townspeople were unconvinced. The first protest took place the following night as residents demanded an end to lockdown measures across the region.
The wave of protests
Protesters hold up pieces of blank white paper on Sunday in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images) Police block Wulumuqi Road, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, amid protests in Shanghai on Sunday. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images) Protesters in Shanghai on Saturday. (AP)
Within three days, the protests had spread thousands of kilometers from Urumqi. As they gathered on campuses, in parks and on city streets, many held up blank sheets of paper, symbols of the government’s sweeping censorship.
Kay Xiao, a 24-year-old programmer in Beijing, said he was about to go to bed Sunday night when he heard news of a protest near Liangma Bridge. In half an hour he was there. Students and young couples waved their white papers as passing cars honked their horns. “Freedom belongs to the people!” some drivers shouted.
These citizen demands have broadened, with zero covid being the proxy for a range of grievances. At the demonstration in Beijing, some called for freedom of the press. Others called for the rule of law and said the people should be the masters of their country. And most daringly, some have targeted the ruling party in its seat of power. “We don’t want a dictatorship! shouted the demonstrators.
There are echoes in the protests. In Chengdu, protesters chanted the slogans written on Sitong Bridge banners that the only protester hung in Beijing. In Dali, a city in southwest Yunnan Province, dozens of young people marched along the city’s central thoroughfare with their blank paper pages held high. They sang the left-wing anthem “L’Internationale” while one person played the guitar.
“With the help of a fire in Xinjiang, people have been set on fire all these nights,” Xiao said.
Few people say they are optimistic that their sudden activism will change things. Xiao acknowledged the likelihood of him and his compatriots being arrested, “because Xi Jinping does not allow anyone to challenge his authority.” Still, he said, it was worth joining in these actions.
“If I heard there was another, I would go back,” he said. “We cannot remain silent. Freedom and rights are not given to you by others.
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