China's protests against "zero Covid" policy

CC0, via Wikimedia Commons - Protests against COVID-19 lockdowns in China, Xipu Campus of Southwest Jiaotong University

“Stop Covid-19 testing — we are hungry!,” “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!,” “Stop restrictions, we want freedom.” These are some of the slogans chanted by the Chinese people who have taken to the streets in at least seventeen cities to protest against the rigid “zero Covid” policies adopted by the Chinese government. This climate of dissent is unusually widespread and transversal in a country that leaves very little room for opposition.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the fire that erupted at the end of November in Urumqi — the capital of Xinjiang — which led to the death of ten people because health restrictions slowed down the rescue services,” says Beatrice Gallelli, professor of Chinese language at the Department of Asian and North African Studies of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and researcher at Istituto Affari Internazionali.

LT1211, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is only one of the many cases that have been reported. A child died in Lanzhou following a gas leak because his residential complex was in lockdown and the emergency services could not arrive in time. The Chinese people are really paying attention to these cases, because they have been happening not only as a result of the extremely strict measures that the Chinese government has been enforcing since the start of the pandemic, but also as a consequence of many instances of emergency mismanagement

Although recent protests were sparked by restrictions, they are also calling for a change in leadership — the last time this happened was the late 1980s. The protests started just a month after the end of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which resulted in a third mandate for Xi Jinping. A symbol of widespread discontent was the protest banner that was hung on the side of a bridge in Beijing, and that among other things read “Say no to great leader, yes to vote” (and was promptly removed by Chinese authorities). As a response, the Government created “bridge watchers” to be stationed at crossings and prevent things like this from happening again.

How is the Government reacting to the protests?

On the one hand there is censorship. Chinese authorities have been working for days to cancel every trace of the protests. Censorship has even reached Twitter, where the President’s name has been flagged as “sensitive” and therefore censurable content. At the moment, the social network Douyin (a sort of ‘Tik Tok’ for Chinese people, though ‘Tik Tok’ is Chinese, too) is allowing users to stream live videos. The news we are receiving from foreign press reports that Chinese police are committing intimidating acts, such as randomly checking people’s mobile phones in order to see whether they use VPNs or other apps that are illegal in the People’s Republic of China.

Cinea467, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the protests are working: the Government is boosting its vaccination campaign and starting to soften restrictions. In Beijing it is no longer mandatory to present a negative Covid test to use public transportation. This is a significant change if we consider that — as I wrote in 2020 in an article on Sinosfere (in Italian) — since 20 January 2020, when Xi Jinping finally announced that Covid-19 was spreading, the Government has always referred to the virus using Mao’s rhetoric of ‘the people’s war’. The pandemic has been portrayed in epic tones, as a challenge that has been brilliantly overcome by the Party. However, the current protests are undermining this myth.

Who has been leading the protests?

The student community — as is often the case — is the driving force of the people’s unrest. Universities in Beijing immediately tried to stop students and even encouraged them to leave the city and start their winter holidays early. On the other hand, during a meeting with Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Xi Jinping seemed to admit that the protests are due to the frustration of having spent three years in lockdown — obviously omitting the main issues, which are the instances of awful mismanagement on the part of the Government. It is also interesting to note that students around the world have been showing solidarity with their Chinese peers.

Xidian University. A Chinese ID, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Federica Scotellaro / Translator: Joangela Ceccon