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Beijing Scrambles to Quell Mass Protests

The sweeping demonstrations posed a major challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authority.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
Protesters hold up white pieces of paper in Beijing.
Protesters hold up white pieces of paper in Beijing.
Protesters hold up white pieces of paper against censorship as they march during a protest against China’s strict zero-COVID measures in Beijing on Nov. 27. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Beijing’s response to sweeping protests, French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, and delayed New START Treaty talks. 

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Authorities Rush to Stamp Out Protests

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Beijing’s response to sweeping protests, French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, and delayed New START Treaty talks

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Authorities Rush to Stamp Out Protests

Chinese authorities have ramped up security and occupied city streets in an effort to quell sweeping, defiant protests that erupted against China’s harsh zero-COVID policy—posing a major challenge to President Xi Jinping’s authority. 

From Shanghai to Guangzhou, protests broke out over the weekend across at least 14 cities against Beijing’s stringent pandemic measures while some demonstrators even demanded that Xi step down. Across the country, blank sheets of paper came to symbolize the protesters’ challenge to mass censorship without the explicit use of words or dissenting speech.

A rare public display of defiance against Beijing, the protests flared after a deadly apartment fire killed at least 10 people in Urumqi, Xinjiang, on Thursday. Xinjiang has largely been locked down for months, and the tragedy fueled suspicions that Beijing’s unyielding lockdown rules may have blocked the victims from reaching safety or the firefighters from swiftly extinguishing the blaze. 

Although sparked by the deadly Urumqi fire, the protests were rooted in “the long-suppressed emotions that have been boiling in the past three years or so because of the negative consequences of zero-COVID,” said Zongyuan Zoe Liu, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In November, a 3-year-old boy died after officials’ rigid enforcement of zero-COVID rules prevented his father from quickly bringing him to a nearby hospital; in September, 27 people were killed after a bus transporting them to a quarantine center crashed. 

To thwart more demonstrations, police have filled the streets of major cities, driving away potential protesters and even inspecting people’s phones for foreign social media and communications apps, the Wall Street Journal reported. Authorities were also seen detaining some demonstrators, and the BBC said police arrested and then beat a BBC reporter who had been covering the unrest. 

Other officials have attempted to placate the public by slightly relaxing some pandemic rules, with Beijing’s city government saying it would stop constructing gates outside of apartment compounds with COVID-19 cases. 

But that doesn’t necessarily signify a larger reversal of zero-COVID itself. “Local governments will likely engage in some token lifting of lockdown measures,” FP’s James Palmer explains. But given the capacity of China’s health care system, vaccine performance, and elderly vaccination rates, “it’s very unlikely that the zero-COVID policy will end anytime soon.”


What We’re Following Today

Macron meets Biden. French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in the United States today for a state visit, as the two countries seek to put the diplomatic fallout from the so-called AUKUS deal behind them.

A senior French official who spoke on condition of anonymity described the state visit as a “really important confirmation of both our oldest alliance and also a strategic partnership in the world of today and tomorrow” as well as a “politically important symbol.” Speaking at the White House on Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby described the visit as “an opportunity to highlight a foundational component of this administration’s foreign policy, and that’s through alliances.” 

The visit is expected to focus on a variety of shared strategic challenges, including the war in Ukraine, as well as the two countries’ cooperation in defense, climate change, and space. The first item on Macron’s public agenda in Washington is a meeting at NASA headquarters on Wednesday morning, where he will be accompanied by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, followed by a lunch with members of Congress to discuss climate change and biodiversity. 

The visit will culminate in a state dinner at the White House on Thursday evening, after which Macron is expected to travel to Louisiana to meet the local Francophone and French community and to discuss Paris’s energy transition partnership with the state. 

Delayed START. Russia has “unilaterally” delayed talks to restart inspections of nuclear weapons sites under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as New START), the U.S. State Department announced on Monday; the talks were set to begin on Tuesday. For more than a decade, the agreement has placed restrictions on Washington and Moscow’s nuclear arsenals, although inspections stopped in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The Russian side informed the United States that Russia has unilaterally postponed the meeting and stated that it would propose new dates,” a State Department spokesperson said, adding that the United States is “ready to reschedule at the earliest possible date as resuming inspections is a priority for sustaining the treaty as an instrument of stability.”


Keep an Eye On 

Monkeypox’s new name. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the monkeypox disease be renamed mpox as a result of concerns of racism and stigmatizing rhetoric. For the next year, both “monkeypox” and “mpox” will be used to enable the phase-out of the first, the WHO said.

“When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO,” the organization said, noting that “a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name.”

Shattered cease-fire. A monthslong cease-fire between the Pakistani government and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) collapsed on Monday after the group called on its members to continue launching attacks. The TTP said it was responding to intensified government military operations. 


Monday’s Most Read

No Justice. No Peace. by Sisonke Msimang

Beijing’s Power Brokers Wouldn’t Surprise Robert Moses by Bob Davis

It’s Time to Debunk Putin’s Existential Fallacy by Stephen Sestanovich


Odds and Ends 

Bambi, the beloved cartoon fawn who has long captured hearts, is now set to become a “vicious killing machine” in a new horror movie. The film—titled Bambi: The Reckoning—is slated to come out close to Valentine’s Day, the Guardian reported

“The film will be an incredibly dark retelling of the 1928 story we all know and love,” director Scott Jeffrey told Dread Central. “Bambi will be a vicious killing machine that lurks in the wilderness. Prepare for Bambi on rabies!”

FP’s Amy Mackinnon contributed reporting.

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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