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  • Lily Meckel

In rare defiance: Anti-covid restriction protests sweep China


In a rare display of open dissent against the Chinese government, people have taken to the streets across the country to protest against China’s failing zero-Covid policy. This policy, a brainchild of Xi Jinping, has led to lockdown after lockdown over the past three years and is deemed to have been the culprit behind a fire in a locked-down apartment complex in Urumqi that killed ten people, sparking nationwide protests.

Whilst protests are not uncommon in China, such blatant defiance of leadership by people from all walks of life across the country is rare. The government has responded by lifting some restrictions, showing how public pressure does pose a challenge in an increasingly authoritarian China, bringing to the forefront the fragility of authoritarian rule in the wake of the internet and a new generation of young people whose lives have been severely impacted by the zero-Covid policy.

The incident that sparked these protests happened on November 24th in Urumqi, western Xinjiang, which had been subject to strict Covid restrictions since August. A fire erupted in an apartment complex, killing ten and injuring nine. People were quick to link the two events: people died in the fire because they could not escape the building that was in lockdown.

Soon after, people started taking to the streets to protest against Covid-19 restrictions. Local authorities responded by promising to lift the lockdown gradually. But that didn’t suffice-- protests continued and spread across the country, mainly challenging the zero-Covid policy and CCP leadership in general, with some openly calling for Xi’s resignation and chanting for democracy.

The anger expressed in these protests is a long time coming. China’s zero-Covid policy, which has been in place since the pandemic began and sought to isolate every case of Covid-19, has consisted of mass testing and surveillance, endless lockdowns, and strict quarantine rules, preventing people from going about their regular lives. The policy was initially successful, as China kept cases and mortalities low compared to other countries. But as the pandemic progressed, many countries opted for mass vaccination campaigns alongside gradually opening up, accepting the virus as something we need to learn to live with.

Xi refused to follow suit, instead sticking to zero-Covid, which has proven more destructive than effective over time, especially as more transmissible variants like Omicron have emerged. Not only has China continued to see record-high infection rates, but vaccination rates remain low. People have been locked down for weeks with food and medicine shortages that have taken a significant economic and social toll on the country and the world.

Whilst this may have been tolerated, frustration has been brewing, manifesting in several localised demonstrations against restrictions. The Urumqi tragedy was the last straw, leading to protests spreading in solidarity across the country and abroad. Blank pieces of paper have become protest symbols, signifying the lack of freedom of speech.

The scale of these protests hasn’t been seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which were one of the greatest challenges to the CCP’s legitimacy and responded to with a brutal military crackdown, which had lasting effects on civil society, dampening the possibility of democracy. This trend has only intensified under Xi Jinping, who has led China in an increasingly authoritarian direction over the past decade.

The fact that these protests happened despite this and led to change shows how the CCP is not invincible, and its survival ultimately still depends on people’s satisfaction. Whilst the government first responded by increasing police presence, cracking down on protests, blocking people from gathering, making arrests, and censoring mention of the protests online, the policy change signifies not quite an admission of error but still a subtle concession on behalf of Xi.

Clearly, there is a limit to what people are willing to accept, and public dissent ultimately pressured the CCP to act, whether the government admits this or not. This demonstrates something that could become a significant challenge to Xi-- if it worked once, it might work again. A new generation of young people, who did not experience 1989, will definitively keep this in the back of their minds.

Whilst China has continuously defied theories that economic success will inevitably lead to democratisation, it is not a given that it will remain so. These protests are a strong reminder of this and repeatedly show the balance the CCP has to strike to maintain its legitimacy.

Image: Flickr/ Epjt Tours



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