China’s zero-COVID policy sparks rare country-wide protests

Viral photos showing the protests at the Communication University in Nanjing. The protest slogan: “I broke my leg, the doctor came and sealed my mouth.”

The building tensions around China’s strict zero-COVID policy have finally exploded, with protests breaking out in major cities all across the country. Protestors are demanding significant political change — in Shanghai, crowds chanted “down with Xi Jinping,” the country’s president who insisted on maintaining the zero-COVID rules for the last three years; in Beijing, journalism students called for freedom of the press.

Given the extremely strict political control, the heavy presence of surveillance technology on the streets, and the censorship of critical voices on all online platforms and social media, mass protests are rarely seen in mainland China in recent years.  While people are fully aware that the authoritative police state has the capability to track and arrest them, they have overcome their fear and stepped out. The current nationwide and bottom-up mobilization has become the largest in scale since the 1989 pro-democracy protests, which resulted in infamous bloodshed and crackdowns against activists and students.

“I am the victim trapped in the fire.”

The national protests emerged spontaneously after a fire broke out in a residential building under COVID-19 lockdown in Urumqi on November 24, 2022, killing at least ten people. The fire was caused by sparks from a power strip in a bedroom on the 15th floor of the building. Yet, it took three hours for the firefighters to put out the fire as the COVID-quarantine enforcement team had previously blocked the entrance of the residential campus with an iron gate. 

The next day, state-run media reported that the residential campus was not under lockdown when the fire broke out and claimed that the major cause of the deaths was due to the lack of “self-rescue capability.” But victims of the fire said that the entrance of the building was locked from the outside, and they had to leave the building via an apartment on the first floor. 

Angry crowds in Urumqi responded to the misinformation with a protest outside the city government building, demanding an end to the more than 100 days of COVID lockdown. The city government pacified the fury with the promise of gradually opening up low-risk areas. 

Urumqi is not the only city affected by the zero-COVID rules. After the Urumqi fire, China's social pressure cooker exploded, as indicated in the following viral expression that has driven people to the streets:

大巴翻车的是我,生病拒诊的是我,徒步百里的是我,崩溃跳楼的是我,火灾被困的是我。如果这些不是我,那么接下来就是我。

I am inside the crashed bus [27 people were killed in a bus crash in Guizhou on September 18, 2022 when transferring people to the quarantine center late at night]; I am the patient who was denied treatment; I am the worker who walked for more than a hundred kilometres [On October 29, thousands of Foxconn workers walked for vast distances to escape campus quarantine]; I am the one who jumped from the highrise [there have been many suicides related to COVID lockdowns]; I am the victim trapped in the fire. If I am not there yet, I will be the next one.

Public outrage drove people to the streets to commemorate the victims. A major demonstration took place on Shanghai city's “Urumqi Road.” Protesters were holding white sheets of paper to symbolize censorship, and singing the national anthem, which begins with the lyrics: “Stand up! Those who refuse to be slaves!” In one spot, protesters were chanting political slogans, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party! Down with Xi Jinping!”

Other Chinese cities, including Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan, etc., joined the movement on November 27. 

Frustration over the zero-COVID policy

People’s frustration has been building for months. Since the outbreak of Omicron variants early this year, China has suffered from a severe economic downturn with a shrinking commodity market and a slumping property market.

Prior to the Congress of the Communist Party of China, a rare protest at the Sitong Bridge in Beijing on October 13 against Xi Jinping and his policies served as an important sign of people’s discontent. People expected the government to loosen the COVID-control measures and rescue the economy. Yet, amid a surge of COVID cases in recent weeks, Beijing decided to beef up its fight with new lockdowns and mass testing.

But people aren't standing for it this time. There have been more and more violent confrontations between quarantine enforcement workers and residents since early November. Guangzhou is a major conflict zone:

After three years of living under the so-called dynamic lockdown, people have lost their confidence in Beijing’s zero-COVID battle. Coincidentally, the ongoing Chinese state propaganda about the failure of Western countries to protect their people and letting them die was debunked by the live-streaming of the World Cup matches:

Again, Beijing responded to people’s anger with censorship. China Central Television blurred and cut out the shots of the unmasked faces of the football fans in its live-streaming. 

However, people’s suffering is real and cannot be so easily obscured. In some regions, including Urumqi, people have been locked up for months, some without any income.

Protests relayed across the country

Protests spread like wildfires in the days following the fire.

At night, more protests emerged across various districts in Beijing under the protest slogan “beyond zero-COVID”: 

Similar protests could be seen all across the country. The majority took place at night peacefully. Guangzhou protesters sang a popular Canton pop to express their love for freedom:

Protesters from Chengdu, Sichuan province, called an end to COVID tests and lockdowns:

The scale of protests in Wuhan, where COVID was first detected in March 2020, was one of the biggest:

Waves of protests also broke out inside the university campus, where student-protesters have been vocally demanding liberal political changes. Students from the Communication University of China from Nanjing wanted  freedom of expression:

Southwest Jiaotong University from Chengdu called for democracy and the rule of law:

Protest posters and flash mobs were numerous. Here is one from Dali, Yunnan

Meanwhile, in some cities, including Shanghai, police officers started arresting protesters.

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