China’s Police Are Catching Up to Protesters

An initially soft approach was probably due to confusion, not policy.

Police keep watch on a road in Beijing.
Police keep watch on a road in Beijing.
Police keep watch on a road by the Liangma River, where recent protests restrictions were established, in Beijing on Nov. 29. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Editor’s note: We decided to keep our special correspondent anonymous because of concerns about their safety.

China is in the midst of the country’s largest public unrest in decades. Over the past four days, angry citizens have taken to the street of dozens of cities across the country to protest against the government’s COVID-19 measures. In some areas, especially major cities, this has included direct challenges to the ruling Communist Party.

Holding flowers, candles, and pieces of blank white paper that symbolize China’s censorship laws, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and others, chanting slogans like, “We don’t want the COVID test. We want freedom,” and “Xi Jinping, step down,” speaking out their long-suppressed frustrations with authorities. That’s left police scrambling as to how to react—now using every tool they can to try and make sure it doesn’t reoccur.

Editor’s note: We decided to keep our special correspondent anonymous because of concerns about their safety.

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China is in the midst of the country’s largest public unrest in decades. Over the past four days, angry citizens have taken to the street of dozens of cities across the country to protest against the government’s COVID-19 measures. In some areas, especially major cities, this has included direct challenges to the ruling Communist Party.

Holding flowers, candles, and pieces of blank white paper that symbolize China’s censorship laws, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and others, chanting slogans like, “We don’t want the COVID test. We want freedom,” and “Xi Jinping, step down,” speaking out their long-suppressed frustrations with authorities. That’s left police scrambling as to how to react—now using every tool they can to try and make sure it doesn’t reoccur.

The protests erupted after an apartment fire killed at least 10 people in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western region of Xinjiang, which has been under a strict lockdown for months. It’s widely believed—though not yet proven—that zero-COVID measures hampered rescue efforts and perhaps prevented residents from escaping.

Protests of this scale and scope are rare for China, especially in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s era, in which national security has become the top priority of the party, and dissenters often face surveillance if not jail time.

“It felt absolutely surreal,” said Juliana, a 27-year-old Shanghai resident who participated in the protests on Wulumuqi Road—which is named after Urumqi—in Shanghai during the small hours of Sunday morning. “If you told me one month ago there would be a protest in Shanghai, I would never believe that.”

“I was truly shocked,” said Sabrina, another protester from that night. “I never thought that one day I would hear the words ‘Xi Jinping, step down” in my lifetime.”

The protesters interviewed by Foreign Policy, who all asked to use pseudonyms to avoid reprisal from the Chinese government, concurred that the demonstrators are mainly young people—a generation stressfully coping with the country’s highly competitive job market and education competition. Since 2020, slogans such as “lying flat,” meaning seeking peace by giving up on ambition; “let it rot,” an expression that giving up would be more beneficial than trying; and “run-ism,” the art of leaving the country, have become popular terms among young Chinese.

In Shanghai, protesters said the unrest was spontaneous and originally quite innocuous. At first, the scene was quiet, Sabrina said, with some people lighting candles and putting flowers on the road to remember the dead in Urumqi. After about 20 minutes, at around 1:30 a.m., some people started to hold up pieces of white paper—a symbol of opposition to censorship—and began chanting anti-government slogans. The vigil thus turned into a protest, and by midnight, hundreds of people were marching and chanting the same slogan.

“[The protest] was quite decentralized,” Juliana said. “You can feel that people come here spontaneously without an organizer and people just chanted what they want to say. Sometimes, there was an embarrassing vibe when protesters started a slogan, wanting the rest to continue, but faced silence.”

What also surprised Juliana and Sabrina is how the state initially failed to stop the protests. In China, unrest and demonstrations are often handled quickly by arresting the protesters and censoring related information. Last month, a demonstrator protested against Xi’s leadership at Sitong Bridge in Beijing during the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The government was quick to arrest him and block the social media accounts of those who shared related pictures.

Yet this time, both the police and authorities in Shanghai seemed surprised by the protests and uncertain about what to do. When Sabrina arrived at Wulumuqi Road around 1 a.m. on Sunday, she saw dozens of police officers standing together blocking the road. Yet, she said people were still able to join the protest without being stopped by the police.

Sabrina even discussed it with one police officer, expressing her surprise at their initial nonviolent, almost wait-and-see response.

“I asked [one police officer] what he will do to the protesters, and he said he doesn’t know exactly but just received orders to stand here,” Sabrina said. “Before we left, he even smilingly waved to us and said goodbye to the protesters.”

The relative peace allowed for some of the most politically sensitive terms to be spoken in public, such as calls for freedom of speech and for the party to relinquish rule. At some point, two protesters even approached the police officers, thanking them for not suppressing the demonstration.

But this initial reaction likely reflects a certain degree of surprise among local and national leaders rather than a softer approach to political dissent. “The police forces involved have been training for this type of protest for years, even decades,” said Suzanne Scoggins, a Clark University professor specializing in China’s security and policing system.

After a few hours, the police at Wulumuqi Road started clearing the street and urging protesters to leave while arresting those who refused to go. The next day, the street sign on Wulumuqi Road was removed, and the street was temporarily blocked.

Rose, a Shanghai-based producer who joined another protest on Sunday, the second day, said when she arrived in Xintiandi, Shanghai’s center shopping area, after seeing a call to protest Telegram, a social app that is censored in China, the police were already at the scene ready to control any possible unrest.

“The police are everywhere. They kept having eye contact with the passerby, and sometimes stopped them to check their phones,” Rose said. “You can see that they are well prepared for it.”

Protests held in in Chengdu on Sunday and Hangzhou on Monday have seen more carefully organized use of force by the police as well as some brutality.

Cong, a freelancer based in China’s western city of Chengdu, joined the protests at the city’s Wangping Street on Sunday with her two friends. When she arrived, police officers, both uniformed and plain-clothed, were urging thousands of protesters to “go home” and beat up those who refused to do so.

“I was dragged by the police for around 50 meters. My underwear was exposed,” said Cong, who became the target of police after trying to stop them from arresting other protesters. “The police dragged me away from the main street and accused me of provocative actions.”

When the police were called to another scene, Cong took the chance to run away. However, the friend that came with Cong was taken by the police during the chaos and was detained for more than 24 hours.

As of Tuesday, the government is actively chasing the protesters to dissuade future unrest. Many protesters from Beijing have received phone calls from the police and have been warned against future demonstrations, and those who were detained by the police said their phones were taken for further scrutiny. The police gave no details on how they had traced these people, but the protesters assume they used China’s widespread surveillance cameras or phone location tracing. There are widespread reports of police checking mobile phones on the streets of major cities for any signs of protest content or foreign apps and virtual private networks. On Monday night, protests seemed to be limited to anti-lockdown crowds in provincial cities.

“The state has invested considerable resources in coordinating protest response with different agencies and local government leaders. In short, the local, provincial, and national levels are well prepared,” Scoggins said.

However, this doesn’t make it easy for the state, according to Scoggins, as the high-profile events involve historically sensitive groups like students and ethnic minority group members.

“I doubt this is going to be a 1989 situation,” Scoggins said, referring to the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square, where the government sent troops to suppress student-led democracy demonstrations. “It is far more likely that we will see the state attempt to subdue dissent quietly with curfews and other measures like enhanced police presence so that ground-level forces will need to resort to public repression as infrequently as possible.”

“Police and other state agents on the ground have to act carefully if they are going to avoid further inflaming the situation,” she added.

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