Will China’s Protests Survive?

A nationwide movement of this scale has no post-1989 precedent.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Protesters hold up white paper as a symbol against censorship during a protest in Beijing.
Protesters hold up white paper as a symbol against censorship during a protest in Beijing.
Protesters hold up white paper as a symbol against censorship during a protest in Beijing on Nov. 27. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

People across China rallied this weekend against the government’s increasingly unpopular zero-COVID policy after a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, with some directly challenging the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It represents the largest wave of popular protest since student-led demonstrations in 1989. Authorities are scrambling to respond to the protests, which have been accompanied by an even broader expression of online support.

Protests are common in China, but nationwide protests for a single cause are not. Protests that explicitly call for the end of the CCP are even rarer, especially in Beijing, where one person dropping a banner calling for the removal of Chinese President Xi Jinping last month made major news. Now, some protesters are openly calling for Xi to step down, blank signs have become a symbol of resistance to censorship, and videos of the protests have spread on social media.

Most protests in China have specific local goals in mind—shying away from ideological challenges—and the demonstrations in Xinjiang that immediately followed the fire stuck to this pattern. But the wider protests for freedom of speech do not; the government in Beijing will see them as a serious threat. What prompted the movement, and how did it take off so quickly? Is there any chance of real change in China? And in an increasingly repressive country, what will happen to the protesters?

People across China rallied this weekend against the government’s increasingly unpopular zero-COVID policy after a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, with some directly challenging the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It represents the largest wave of popular protest since student-led demonstrations in 1989. Authorities are scrambling to respond to the protests, which have been accompanied by an even broader expression of online support.

Protests are common in China, but nationwide protests for a single cause are not. Protests that explicitly call for the end of the CCP are even rarer, especially in Beijing, where one person dropping a banner calling for the removal of Chinese President Xi Jinping last month made major news. Now, some protesters are openly calling for Xi to step down, blank signs have become a symbol of resistance to censorship, and videos of the protests have spread on social media.

Most protests in China have specific local goals in mind—shying away from ideological challenges—and the demonstrations in Xinjiang that immediately followed the fire stuck to this pattern. But the wider protests for freedom of speech do not; the government in Beijing will see them as a serious threat. What prompted the movement, and how did it take off so quickly? Is there any chance of real change in China? And in an increasingly repressive country, what will happen to the protesters?


What triggered the protests?

Last Thursday, a fire broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi, killing at least 10 people (and perhaps more than 40), including children. The victims appear to be mostly from the Uyghur Muslim minority, which has faced a campaign of intense state violence in Xinjiang since 2017.

Xinjiang has been under a strict lockdown since early August. Claims soon spread by word of mouth and online that COVID-19 prevention measures, including physical barricades and locked doors and staircases, had prevented firefighters from reaching the building in time and residents from evacuating. At a press conference the day after the fire, the head of the fire rescue brigade denied these claims and blamed the victims, saying, “Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak.”

It’s still not clear what happened in Urumqi, but COVID-19 control measures across China have involved blocking and controlling the exits of apartment buildings. The security measures used to suppress the Uyghur population in Xinjiang have taken a similar approach to monitor movement. Xinjiang has a particularly tragic history with fire disasters; in 1994, a fire in a theater in Karamay killed 325 people, including 288 children. The CCP officials at the theater, however, insisted that they leave first and were accused of fleeing the scene.


What do the protests look like?

The protests after the Urumqi fire can be broadly divided into three groups. First, in Xinjiang itself, people came out in large numbers on Friday night, taking to cold winter streets in several cities. Others have aggressively confronted COVID-19 control workers and police, which prompted announcements that authorities would partially lift lockdown measures in neighborhoods with lower risk, although many areas remain under lockdown.

The fire also prompted dozens of anti-lockdown protests elsewhere in China, including gatherings in at least 14 cities outside Xinjiang. Sporadic anti-lockdown protests have taken place this year, especially in Shanghai, but these protests represent a large and simultaneous wave. The anti-lockdown protesters often engage in direct action, such as tearing down gates and barriers. Wuhan, under partial lockdown, saw a huge gathering in the heart of the city.

But the protesters most threatening to the CCP are those who have gone beyond anger over zero-COVID to call for freedom of speech and an end to government propaganda, quickly adopting a blank sheet of paper as a symbol. A protester in Beijing powerfully summed up the movement’s feeling: “Our own countrypeople, our fellow citizens, died in a man-made disaster—and did it even make the news? No! Nothing but lies and silence and holding back,” the protester shouted.

One of the most prominent protests took place on Saturday night in Shanghai, on the symbolically named Urumqi Street. Protesters openly chanted “Xi Jinping! Step down!” and “Communist Party! Step down!” before police began arrests. More people gathered the next day, increasingly hostile toward police. Authorities took down the Urumqi Street sign, prompting mockery online. Reports of protesters arrested in Shanghai prompted protesters in other cities to call for their release.

The scale and directness of these anti-party demonstrations, which have ranged from single protesters to hundreds of people, has no post-1989 precedent. On Sunday evening, a few hundred people gathered by the Liangma River in the heart of heavily controlled Beijing, calling for freedom of speech and the press. More than 50 university campuses also saw protests, including large gatherings in Beijing at the elite Tsinghua University and Peking University, where many of those protesting at Tiananmen Square in 1989 studied.


Why are nationwide protests happening now?

The last year of China’s zero-COVID policy has broken down people living in cities. In 2021, most people still saw the policy as a national success, compared with the rest of the world—still undergoing persistent outbreaks and restrictions. That changed fast, especially after Shanghai experienced a two-month lockdown earlier this year. In the face of the omicron variant, other governments with zero-COVID policies, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand, moved on and began to manage outbreaks thanks to preparation and vaccines. China’s policy seems to have no end in sight.

The Urumqi fire built on growing anger about the persistence of zero-COVID measures. Hopes that a loosened policy would follow the Party Congress in October were dashed by China’s biggest outbreaks yet. Much of the country is under at least partial lockdown, with restaurants often closed and public spaces restricted. In recent months, there have been numerous smaller protests and viral incidents of lockdown suffering. Images of unmasked crowds at the 2022 FIFA World Cup have also drawn fresh attention to the rest of the world’s reopening.

Since taking power, Xi has undertaken a continuous assault on the relative freedoms that the Chinese public had grown accustomed to in the early 2000s. The zero-COVID policy has only intensified the feeling of being cut off from the world. The crackdowns in Hong Kong and the effective installation of Xi as president for life this year have chipped away at any hope that the system might evolve toward more freedoms.

Although protesters have not directly named the concentration camps or other anti-Uyghur measures, that the fire took place in Xinjiang also resonates because of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity there. The government’s condemnation of the United States, United Nations, and other groups and governments that have reported on the atrocities has paradoxically made the Chinese public more aware of what has happened in Xinjiang.


How will the government respond?

Police initially seemed uncertain about how to handle the protests, but they quickly pivoted to breaking up crowds and carrying out widespread arrests. The approach still varies from city to city. As of early Monday night in China, these suppression measures seemed to seriously reduce the protests. A wave of targeted arrests is likely to follow as police use China’s surveillance net to identify individual protesters. If protests continue, the response is likely to be heavy-handed, including deployment of the People’s Armed Police—China’s paramilitary forces, which have quashed protests in Xinjiang and Tibet with considerable force.

However, a punitive crackdown risks more protests elsewhere and so will measures such as expelling or punishing students. Many protesters appear to be well-off young people living in the metropolises; their persecution will be more visible than many victims of Chinese government oppression. It’s also possible that in some areas the government has reached the limits of its repressive capacities; maintaining zero-COVID has required increasingly large investments of government labor and money.

Chinese state media has so far simply avoided covering the protests. The current line from police on the ground and online nationalists echoes the trope of so-called foreign forces orchestrating the protests. If videos of the protests keep spreading online, major Chinese internet services may restrict the ability to upload video at all. In extreme cases, the government could disconnect the internet for most people, as it did in Xinjiang in 2009, or cut off mobile connections to prevent protesters from coordinating movement on the street.

The Chinese leadership is likely to read these protests not as a sign of policy failure but as an indication that ideological control measures haven’t gone far enough, prompting a wave of greater censorship. This is also a serious test of Xi’s personalized rule; if the protests continue or resurge, it could energize those unhappy with his leadership and perhaps even lead to an attempt to topple him from the inside.


Why doesn’t the government just lift zero-COVID?

Local governments will likely engage in some token lifting of lockdown measures to try to quell protesters, as has already happened in Xinjiang. But it’s very unlikely that the zero-COVID policy will end anytime soon. China’s health care system is simply not prepared: It has a critical shortage of hospital beds, its vaccines underperform mRNA vaccines, and vaccination rates among people 60 and older are inadequate and for 80 and older are terrible. (China’s own anti-Western propaganda has made it difficult to adopt mRNA vaccines.) Any serious reopening risks hundreds of thousands of deaths and a severely compromised health care system.

The government has also committed itself to the policy and linked it to Xi’s personal control. For local authorities, any decision is a bad one: Reopening risks rising case numbers and blame from their bosses, while remaining closed risks economic disaster and public rage. In the absence of clear new direction from the top, they will stick with the status quo.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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