Rare street protests across China: Is Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy turning people against their government?

Screen shot from The Guardian YouTube channel showing demonstrations in Shanghai on Ürümqi street.

China is witnessing rare street protests and demonstrations uniting workers, ethnic minorities, students and urban residents, who are calling for an end to the “zero-COVID” policy that has turned the entire country into a virtual prison. Such unrest is unprecedented in recent Chinese history, and bears similarities with to the demonstrations that were crushed on June 4, 1989, in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Following a fire on November 25 in a high-rise building in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang in western China, which saw the death of several victims likely because of the drastic lockdown of buildings and streets across China in keeping with Xi Jinping's “zero-COVID” policy, residents of the city—both Uyghurs and Han Chinese—took to the streets to demand an end to the crippling sanitary measures.

The zero-COVID policy aims at preventing any community spread and is heavily enforced in China. This means social and economic life is often paralyzed, and travel severely restricted. The policy has also led to starvation, as people are unable to shop for basic food items, and has resulted in increasing frustration for hundreds of millions of people.

The fact that demonstrations broke out in Ürümqi is alarming for Beijing, which continues a policy of genocide towards the Uyghur population in the region. The city witnessed ethnic clashes in 2009 that left nearly 200 people dead.

Spreading like wildfire

What is particularly unusual, and certainly extremely worrisome for the Chinese authorities, is that despite the strict censorship of social media and traditional media, news about the fire victims and the protests in Ürümqi, have spread rapidly across the country, sparking demonstrations in other cities.

The tension between the people and the government has been simmering for quite some time. On October 13, days before the Chinese Communist Party Congress that confirmed Xi Jinping's mandate as the head of the country, a protestor hung a banner on a central bridge in Beijing demanding the end of the zero-COVID measures. Such public manifestations of discontent are extremely rare in China and usually suppressed within minutes, given the government's ultra-sophisticated system of surveillance and facial recognition, particularly in large cities.

On November 23, workers at Foxconn, a factory in Henan province producing Apple iPhones, protested the same sanitary measures and clashed with security forces.

Then the unexpected happened: starting on November 26, students and urban residents across the country decided to honour the dead of Ürümqi by staging their own public remembrances. Those actions rapidly turned into campus dissent and street demonstrations in cities such as Chengdu, Shanghai, and Beijing.

Global Voices spoke to Vivian Wu, a native from Beijing currently based in New York who is actively covering the unrest on her Twitter account. Wu is a seasoned journalist and media entrepreneur who served as BBC Hong Kong head and as editor for the South China Morning Post and Initium Media.

As Wu explains, the sense of solidarity comes from the realization that the zero-COVID policy has put everyone's life at risk:

The tragedy in Ürümqi – when you are blocked or prevented from running out and die as a result – could happen to anyone in China. That is why people are outraged across the country. Everyone is locked up in all the major cities, at a time when the world is opening up, people are going back to normal life. Whereas in China there is a tightening of those policies. Xi Jinping enforces the ‘zero-COVID’ policy to show he is a winner in the pandemic. People were hoping that measures would be loosening up but local governments want to show their loyalty to Xi Jinping, so very often, they actually scale up the policy.

This comes on top of years of accumulated frustration, as Wu details:

A significant amount of people is now aware that this policy is inhumane, and economically harmful: so many businesses, restaurants, schools have shut down. People suffer financially – an unprecedented situation after 30 years of economic reforms and rapid GDP growth. People also saw that during the World Cup no one is wearing a mask, while in China people are sometimes locked down for 100 days.

But the incident that may have inspired many, argues Wu, is the one that took place on October 13 on that bridge in Beijing:

The Sitong Bridge incident set a fire: the man behind it, Peng Zaizhou also issued a statement to ask Xi Jinping to step down. His requests are now being chanted right now all over the streets of China's largest cities. Peng became a model – a single voice stating anger publicly. This is unprecedented in a country with no freedom of speech, no right to demonstrate even in small groups. People are desperate and feel they have nothing to lose after nearly three years of drastic policies. Students have also used very smart means to express their rejection of the ‘Zero-COVID’ policies, the lack of freedom on campuses, as can be seen from images now circulating on social media.

Shocking images of protest in a heavily policed state 

Wu is covering the demonstrations in real time as photos, videos and comments surface in China and are rapidly copied before they are censored on social media. Many Chinese residents also send videos to friends abroad and ask them to post them outside of the Chinese internet.

Here, Wu shares scenes from Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, that, for anyone familiar with China, are an exceedingly rare occurrence: people marching and protesting without police trying to stop or detain them:

This scene shows a peaceful protest, explaining that the idea is to remember the Ürümqi victims, while the main speaker is clearly not afraid of the police—again something very unusual in today's China:

Wu posts video of a similar scene in central Beijing, where seeing people holding simple protest signs is difficult to imagine under any other circumstances, given the presence of embassies in that area, and the desire of the Chinese government to always show its society as “harmonious”:

In another video, the question of the future for young Chinese people is put directly to the police:

And in Shanghai, where people gather on Ürümqi Street to commemorate the victims, the police remove the street sign in an effort to manage these unprecedented demonstrations in a city known for political repression:

More videos can be seen at the China Protest 2022 Twitter account.

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