Images from a solidarity protest outside the Chinese embassy in Toronto. Overseas members of the Chinese diaspora and allies have gathered in cities around the world to support the protestors in China. Image via Wikimedia commons via (CC BY-SA 4.0) 

Amid some of the harshest censorship and digital tracking policies in the world, where people are constantly controlled by surveillance technology such as cameras and the COVID geo-tracking app, citizens in China have taken to the streets to protest increasing authoritarianism, shrinking spaces for free speech and free expression, and China’s ongoing zero-COVID plan, which has left some citizens in lockdown for nearly three years. 

Protests erupted on November 25 after a fire broke out in an apartment complex in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang in western China, where at least ten people died. The building was under strict lockdown because of China’s zero-COVID policies, which may have led to increased deaths as residents were unable to exit through the buildings’ primary entrance. 

China’s zero-COVID policy involves a strict series of measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with virtually no flexibility. For the last three years, citizens have been subjected to city-wide lockdowns when individuals were found to be infected with COVID-19, mandatory masks, quarantine, isolation, community-wide PCR testing, travel restrictions, and more. While the measures may have saved China at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, three years later, it has generated deep frustration and desperation among its citizens, as some say its overkill which has crippled the nation’s confidence and economy. 

But the harsh zero-COVID guidelines aren’t the only issue protestors are taking on. The country’s sharp economic downturn has alarmed citizens and led to a significant rise in inflation and economic stagnation. To some extent, the crisis was caused by the US-China trade war, as well as President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the private sector, including the financial, entertainment, technology, and education sectors, the real estate market, and more.

At the same time, students and journalists are using the nationwide protests to call for increased freedom of speech and expression in China. Under current President Xi Jinping, who is set to enter his third presidential term, press freedom and free expression have declined, and strict censorship of the public sphere, internet, entertainment industry, and more have made dissent nearly impossible from mainland China. 

Since the protests, allies and Chinese diaspora members around the world have stepped up to join the protests, gathering outside Chinese embassies in cities such as Toronto, New York, and Sydney to stand in solidarity with the protestors in China.

The recent protests bear similarity to the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China, which were infamously and brutally crushed on June 4, 1989, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Against landscape, the recent protests are a remarkable feat of civil society as citizens try to reclaim their rights. It is made even more impressive considering China’s advanced surveillance and tracking infrastructure today, which will likely aid the government in identifying and targeting those who participate in the demonstrations. 

Global Voices will be covering the current protests in China and providing context on the authoritarian policies and history that have inspired them. We will also be exploring how the protests are affecting other parts of the world, including Central Asia and Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. 

For reliable resources with frequent updates in English and Chinese, see the following list. This will be updated as more information is released.

Stories about China's authoritarian tipping point

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