What Sparked China’s Weekend of Anger?

Experts discuss the roots of China’s protests.

Protesters hold up pieces of A4 paper in China.
Protesters hold up pieces of A4 paper in China.
Protesters hold up pieces of A4 paper as a symbol against censorship and China's strict zero-COVID measures in Beijing on Nov. 27. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Over the weekend, large demonstrations broke out in cities across China. The protests followed news, spread rapidly across Chinese and international social media, that a fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi on Friday had turned deadly, claiming at least 10 lives (and potentially dozens more), possibly as a result of the region’s COVID-19 lockdowns. Throngs of residents took to the streets in anger, where the singing of “The Internationale” and China’s national anthem mingled with calls to end the zero-COVID policy. In Shanghai, where protesters gathered Saturday on the city’s Urumqi Road, chants expressed support for the fire’s victims as well as calls for the lifting of zero-COVID restrictions and even demands—extraordinary in a country that does not tolerate political dissent—that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its newly reappointed leader, Xi Jinping, “step down.” On Sunday, demonstrators appeared at multiple locations across Beijing, including Peking and Tsinghua universities, where some called for “universal rights” and “freedom of expression” while others held aloft blank sheets of paper, symbols of the many things they were forbidden to say.

We asked ChinaFile contributors for initial thoughts on the protests’ origins and significance.—The ChinaFile Editors


How Lockdown Support Became Lockdown Rage

By Guobin Yang, Grace Lee Boggs professor of communication and sociology at the Annenberg School for Communication and the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania

Over the weekend, large demonstrations broke out in cities across China. The protests followed news, spread rapidly across Chinese and international social media, that a fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi on Friday had turned deadly, claiming at least 10 lives (and potentially dozens more), possibly as a result of the region’s COVID-19 lockdowns. Throngs of residents took to the streets in anger, where the singing of “The Internationale” and China’s national anthem mingled with calls to end the zero-COVID policy. In Shanghai, where protesters gathered Saturday on the city’s Urumqi Road, chants expressed support for the fire’s victims as well as calls for the lifting of zero-COVID restrictions and even demands—extraordinary in a country that does not tolerate political dissent—that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its newly reappointed leader, Xi Jinping, “step down.” On Sunday, demonstrators appeared at multiple locations across Beijing, including Peking and Tsinghua universities, where some called for “universal rights” and “freedom of expression” while others held aloft blank sheets of paper, symbols of the many things they were forbidden to say.

We asked ChinaFile contributors for initial thoughts on the protests’ origins and significance.—The ChinaFile Editors


How Lockdown Support Became Lockdown Rage

By Guobin Yang, Grace Lee Boggs professor of communication and sociology at the Annenberg School for Communication and the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania

The anti-lockdown protests in China over the past few days surprised outside observers. How could what had seemed to be overwhelming public support for lockdown policies in 2020 give way to today’s radical protests?

This article was originally published in ChinaFile. 
This article was originally published in ChinaFile. 

This article was originally published in ChinaFile. 

Some of the reasons are well rehearsed. While there are still serious fears of the coronavirus, public perception of how to manage COVID-19 has changed, especially after the Shanghai lockdown earlier this year. Stringent lockdown and quarantine policies have not only restricted citizens’ mobility for too long but have also gravely impaired livelihoods, especially of migrant workers and other disadvantaged social groups. Worse still, many harms and injustices have been perpetuated in the name of the zero-COVID policy, the most recent being the apartment fire in Urumqi. Scandals over grassroots bureaucrats and businesses abusing the zero-COVID policy for power or profit keep appearing on social media. The accumulated public resentment finally burst out.

That said, let’s not exaggerate the surprise factor in the current protests. Protests happen in China all the time, and outside observers like us hasten to greet them as if they were an exotic rarity. Such exoticization blinds us to the determination and skills of ordinary Chinese citizens in handling their own affairs, including through protests.

In fact, the seeds of the current protests were already sown during the lockdown of Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic. Despite their support of the Wuhan lockdown in 2020, citizens never stopped voicing their anger or concerns. They did not protest the lockdown policies themselves but the mismanagement of those policies—such as when residential committees failed to deliver promised groceries. At that point, an implicit social contract had been broken, and citizens found reason to protest. To be sure, in 2020, they aired their grievances on social media instead of in the streets or on college campuses. But they showed the same determination and creativity as their fellow slogan-shouting citizens in 2022. It behooves observers of Chinese politics and society to always remember and acknowledge the activist potential of the Chinese citizenry but also to know that such potential may work in seemingly unexpected ways. Citizens in China can be active supporters or vocal critics of their government’s policies depending on how well or badly the policies serve their interests.


Zero-COVID Has Wrecked Havoc on Trust

By Taisu Zhang, professor of law at Yale Law School

Observing the zero-COVID policy’s fall from grace in the eyes of the Chinese public over the past nine months has been quite the experience. I track Chinese social media discussion trends relatively closely, and the transformation has been stark: Around the time of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, there was no significant dissent on Weibo or in my WeChat “friends circle.” Instead, there was quite a lot of mockery of lax foreign prevention policies and much pride in China’s success at keeping transmission and deaths very low. In sharp contrast, by mid-November, it was already obvious that the tide of public opinion was turning decisively against the government’s COVID-19 prevention system. Then the Urumqi incident happened, and social anger exploded. What changed?

Some of the macro-level causes are fairly obvious: First and perhaps foremost, the economy has deteriorated severely under the weight of lockdowns. The service industry felt especially close to the brink during my three-month stay in Beijing over the summer. Youth unemployment now hovers near 20 percent. In years past, the state might have stepped in with some sort of stimulus to ease the pain, but zero-COVID has also exacted an enormous toll on the fiscal health of the state apparatus, which has been further accentuated by the now nationwide decline in real estate prices. These factors have combined to depress household income and wealth more severely than most under-30 Chinese residents have ever experienced.

Second, after nearly three years of periodic lockdowns, many people’s patience with being physically constrained may simply have run out. The strain on families with school-age children, in particular, has been enormous and has accumulated over time, especially in the form of deteriorating educational and developmental outcomes. The contrast with near-universal reopening elsewhere in the world—driven home by the sight of tens of thousands of unmasked fans at the World Cup over the past week—must have made these constraints all the more aggravating.

Third, several episodes of local government mismanagement, corruption, and abuse of power likely eroded public trust in the state. The logistical failures in Shanghai during the early phases of its spring lockdown are perhaps the most well-known of these. Other examples include the Henan health code scandal in June and a series of social outcries at collusion between PCR testing manufacturers and local officials. The independent significance of these issues is somewhat debatable, but they each aggravated a gradually deteriorating social situation.

Beyond these background issues, the most immediate cause of these late November protests seems to be a lack of consistency in the government’s post-20th Party Congress political signaling. For much of early to mid-November, most signals—the “20 Guidelines” issued by the central government, the reluctance of Guangzhou and Shijiazhuang to lock down despite escalating cases—suggested a substantial loosening of controls. The initial public social media reaction, despite some anxiety over COVID-19 spread, was largely positive. Then came the reversals of the past week: Large parts of Beijing were placed under lockdown, Shijiazhuang and Guangzhou had to escalate their restrictions, and government rhetoric once again struck a more alarming tone. For many, this dashing of newfound hope may well have been the last straw that set them fully against government controls.

The policy backtracking also left local government officials and agents without coherent regulatory mandates to rely on. During Beijing’s partial lockdown in May and June, policy documents issued by the city government gave district and subdistrict officials a relatively clear set of directives, which they passed down to managers in residential communities for actual implementation. With the issuance of the 20 Guidelines, however, the government’s official posture had become more nuanced: “Do this, but also be sure to not do too much of it.” The backtracking discussed above suggests that even the central government was, for a time, unsure of what the correct balance should be. Small wonder, then, that many local officials seemed genuinely bewildered on what exactly they were asked to do. Perhaps sensing the confusion, some segments of the population began to publicly question the legality of local lockdowns, further accelerating the erosion of public trust in COVID-19 control policies.

Had the central government been able to maintain a higher level of policy consistency and coherence, it may well have been able to ease, or at least suppress, public unhappiness enough to make it to next spring without a major social blowup. Instead, by muddling through its messaging after the Party Congress, it now finds itself in the tightest sociopolitical circumstances China has experienced in three decades. Decisive and clearly communicated easing of zero-COVID controls, paired with a stronger vaccination and booster push, might still be able to defuse social tensions. It is hard to see how anything else could.


Party COVID Slogans Now Ring Hollow

By Barclay Bram, junior fellow on Chinese society at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis

The protests across China in recent days have been read by some foreign media as a referendum on Xi himself. While there are some among the protesters who can be heard explicitly calling for him to stand down, the majority of people appear to be simply fed up with the continued epidemic prevention measures and the Kafkaesque travails of daily life in zero-COVID China. The economy has stagnated, and it has become apparent, through social media and the packed stadiums of the mask-free World Cup, that China is singular in its desire to keep the population free of the virus at such stark costs.

The CCP has repeatedly doubled down on telling people that these measures are for their own good because they preserve life—the slogan often heard is “people first, life first.” As Xi told a group of experts in June 2020, “People only have one life. We must protect it. Everything we do starts from this principle.” This now sounds hollow, as suicides mount and incidents such as the Guizhou bus crash and the Urumqi apartment fire show that epidemic prevention policies are now a threat to life itself.

This mismatch between rhetoric and reality has caused enough anger to see people on the streets. What the protests have also revealed is that information travels in China, even in conditions of such extreme censorship. That some of the most arresting scenes have come from Urumqi Road in Shanghai tells us that the fire in Urumqi has been seen by the people of Shanghai. That some of the protesters have been quoting the banner that was unfurled on Sitong Bridge in Beijing just before the 20th Party Congress tells us that that striking lone protest has managed to quietly bury itself into the hearts of many people.


Control at the Top, Calamity at the Bottom

By Pamela Kyle Crossley, Charles and Elfriede Collis professor of history at Dartmouth College

In my book The Wobbling Pivot, I argued that in imperial times the government of China had survived on the self-sufficiency of its local communities and for that reason was incapable of suppressing popular uprisings of a critical scale. This instability-by-design persisted through the Republican period, and though the CCP found a way to provide China its first truly large government, early leaders (all born in the last decades of the Qing empire) adapted the governing style of imperial times: The state must be able to wobble under the pressures of aroused public opinion—but not fall. Officials needed to remember that, in an all-out fight, government would be no match for the people.

The juxtaposition of the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress and the spread of protests across the country is striking. On the one hand, Xi appeared to have nearly completed his control of the CCP. As the Hu Jintao column of the party very publicly collapsed, the Jiang Zemin base was co-opted, and Xi was set up to continue as general secretary indefinitely. On the other hand, the incompetence of Xi’s attempts to manage the social and economic impacts of his zero-COVID policies has been exposed to a greater degree than previously, and the ability of the party—whether in the grasp of Xi or not—to govern the country is being questioned more seriously in both China and abroad than perhaps at any time since 1989.

Xi remains stuck as the rest of the world has moved on to COVID-19 coexistence based on vaccines and bulked-up health systems that are superior to China’s. His one-note, reflexive lockdowns and refusal to import effective foreign mRNA vaccines have painted the entire country into a corner where, according to Xi, any degree of COVID-19 spread should be regarded as more terrifying than the prospect of frequent or permanent unemployment because of the deepening shutdown of parts of the economy; or serious illness, injury, or death (including by suicide) after being locked up for weeks with inadequate food and medical care; or forced transfers to inhospitable environments.

Now, the state-induced calamity of a high-rise fire in Urumqi killing locked-in residents while firefighters appear to have been locked out has helped spark a comprehensive protest voicing deepening suspicion that the government is flogging public panic about COVID-19 as a way of obscuring its failures while silencing both public and private criticism with surveillance of unprecedented intrusion and ruthlessness. Not only Urumqi but Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Xi’an, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, and Nanjing have reported large demonstrations since the fire, on a scale that Chinese compare fearfully and hopefully with May 1989. The Xinjiang provincial government is showing signs of wobbling in order to not fall, but Xi may prove the first Chinese national leader of modern times to fail the wobble.


Foxconn Workers Launched a Wave of Anger

By Rebecca E. Karl, professor of history at New York University

It is quite impossible to say anything definite about what is happening in China now. Information is at the mercy of one’s circles and social media feeds. It appears that there are a number of simultaneous but uncoordinated social explosions of frustration, anger, anguish, and pent-up pain. Some of it appears very political—“Xi Jinping, step down” in downtown Shanghai; “freedom of speech” at universities—and some of it seems to articulate a total emotional exhaustion with the “dynamic zero-COVID” regime rolling through people’s lives in increasingly arbitrary and willful fashion. The current round of explosive collective anger, we must recall, began with the large-scale worker unrest in Zhengzhou’s Foxconn factory, where conditions of labor are normally abysmal and, in the recently implemented “closed loop” system, are now intolerable. (“Closed loop” refers to factory-dormitory trajectories that reduce to an absolute minimum extraneous activity that might introduce infection.) As Eli Friedman pointed out in an interview with Jacobin about the recent labor actions in Zhengzhou, the fact that workers now are escaping the factory grounds by surreptitiously scaling fences and perimeter walls indicates that there is a prison-like situation at the giant facility where iPhones are produced.

I leave it to others to trace a clearer timeline of events. The point I want to make is that, as with all such efforts at chronology, where one begins matters. I choose to begin with workers, to emphasize what our commentariat now will most likely ignore: that the current explosion cannot be seen as a purely urban or educated class phenomenon but rather is rooted in the brutal regimes of wealth accumulation, labor extraction, and global-domestic political power that have grown and metastasized in the past several decades. As William Hurst has roughly analyzed in his Twitter feed, the layering of unrests since 1989—in villages where rapacious land grabs dispossess peasants; in factories, in mines, and on digital platforms where labor regimes are cruelly extractive; among poorer urban denizens and migrants defrauded by real estate and banking concerns backed by municipal governments; among feminists and those refusing to conform to patriarchal modes of social organization—has mostly bypassed urban petty bourgeois and capitalist classes who have benefited hugely from the systems of oppression on which their comfortable lives have been fashioned. The pandemic and increasing disruption of those lives have now registered as intolerable.

What we are seeing now is a number of brave urban folks coming out of their homes to contest the conditions of their partially locked-down lives. They perhaps have not linked their difficulties to the lives of their poorer, more exploited compatriots; in fact, it is a fair bet that most have not. Yet the spectacle of Uyghur deaths in an inferno in Urumqi, an earlier bus crash in Guizhou that killed 27 people being transported to a quarantine facility, the Lanzhou toddler who perished from gas inhalation in his sealed-off home—the toll is taking its toll. Urban denizens are legible to themselves and to the international media. They are capable of scaling the Great Firewall and posting on global social media sites, thus becoming fully visible as a collective to a diasporic populace of angry young folks abroad who can amplify and articulate their own political despair in resonant dialogue with their friends and families at home. They speak the language of Euro-American democracy fluently and can make themselves heard as well as seen.

Will the state find a way to repress and then buy these urban denizens off, to bribe them back into their lives so as to calm the unrest while proceeding with the concentrations of power, wealth, and surveillance capacity apace? Or will these actions snowball into something for which we still have no name? We will see.


Americans Should Have Thought Twice Before Praising China’s COVID-19 Policies

By Yangyang Cheng, fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion on COVID-19. One of the speakers, an American biologist, delivered a scathing critique of his government’s pandemic response. The just assessment was nevertheless undermined when he praised China’s zero-COVID policy without reservation. The primary evidence he cited was the official death toll from the virus.

I was already squirming in my seat when the presenter dismissed the flood of first-person accounts from China on the draconian lockdowns and their immense human cost as merely “anecdotal,” amplified by anti-China propaganda. By the time he brought up the fatal crash in Guizhou, where a midnight quarantine bus toppled and claimed 27 lives, it took great physical effort for me to not storm out on hearing that the calamity was a misfortune that “could have happened anywhere.” In search of an exit, I turned around and saw my Chinese-born colleague. Our eyes held each other in shared frustration. For anyone with loved ones in China, this year has been an unending stream of helpless worries. A part of my being, like millions of lives in my birth country, is held in dreadful suspense.

When people in cities across China at last took to the streets to refuse the ruthless restrictions, the demonstration was, quite literally, a prison break. I wonder if the biologist has been paying attention to the protests or if he has disregarded them as more “anecdotes,” possibly incited by nefarious foreign forces, as Chinese state media claims. U.S. exceptionalism and Cold War binary thinking are not the exclusive terrain of the right. On the other end of the political spectrum, many also mistake the United States as the only actor with agency and construct a fictionalized other in the reverse image of the West to project their own grievances and desires. Some of the loneliest moments I’ve experienced as a Chinese immigrant in the United States were spent among self-branded left-wing circles. Those who should have been my comrades in imagining a world after capitalism instead cling to the delusion that a nominally communist party already has the answer. Their rightful skepticism of American power translates into an uncritical embrace of Beijing’s lies.

The popular discourse on COVID-19 is emblematic of this false dichotomy. For the world’s two superpowers, differing approaches to a common virus are cast through the lens of systemic rivalry. Either side has plenty of proof for the other’s failure. Neither dare admit the fallacy of their own ways or the possibility of another path. “Give me liberty or give me death” takes on the most cynical meaning. Yet beyond the self-serving narratives, both governments have prioritized power and deemed certain populations disposable; public health gives way to special interests. When the Chinese protesters chanted no to the PCR testing that has become synonymous with dictatorial control, the freedom and safety they yearn for are not in a return to yesterday or an escape to elsewhere but, as they sang in “The Internationale,” in a better tomorrow that is to be realized through collective struggle.


The Pact Between Party and People Is Broken

By Ho-fung Hung, Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld professor in political economy at the sociology department and School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University

The protests spreading across China are a remarkable departure from protests in China over the past three decades. Ever since the 1989 crackdown, most if not all protests have been restricted to local demands and have targeted local officials. Slogans such as “Xi Jinping, step down!” “Communist Party, step down!” heard, echoed, and recorded in many protests in recent days represent extraordinary fearlessness.

This wave of protests has been brewing for some time. The Beijing “Bridge Man” lone protest right before the 20th Party Congress already inspired anonymous expressions of dissent on Western university campuses, presumably launched by young Chinese students. The treatment of Hu Jintao and the rise of a Xi-loyalist-only leadership at the Party Congress presaged a new era in which checks and balances and different opinions would disappear even among the highest elite. The strict zero-COVID policy at the expense of the economy suggests that leadership under Xi’s new term will no longer prioritize economic growth. Many have observed a sense of desperation among China’s youth at the apparent end of the era of reform and opening up.

Over the past three decades, the stability of China’s status quo has been grounded on a pact between the CCP and the people (the urban middle class in particular) that the party could deliver constant improvement of the economy and material life so long as its authoritarian rule was not challenged. But over the past 10 years, the expansion of the unprofitable, monopolistic state sector at the expense of the dynamic private sector, the aggressive foreign-policy posture that unnecessarily provokes China’s trading partners, and the crackdown on successful tech companies all point to the party-state’s increasingly willingness to break that pact and sacrifice the economy for political control. Some already characterize these developments as the North Koreanization of China.

Zero-COVID lockdowns with no end in sight are the straw that broke the camel’s back. The policy confirms the worst fear among the urban middle class and young people: that they are no longer beneficiaries but now victims of an increasingly totalitarian state. This wave of spontaneous protest represents a desperate attempt by young people to reverse or at least slow down this process. But it may be too late already. Across the world, autocratic regimes in Myanmar, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, among others, have managed to beat back the challenge of spontaneous protests. There is little reason to speculate that the Xi regime, which single-mindedly perfected the infrastructure of state control, surveillance, and repression over the last decade, will succumb to this wave of disorganized protest.

There is a chance that the protests will be persistent and fearless enough to engender elite revolt within China that changes the direction of history. But in the scenario where the regime digs in and the protests dissipate, the Xi regime will emerge stronger and more ruthless, until an inevitable succession crisis in the unknown future shakes it.


Don’t Forget the Urumqi Fire That Started the Protests

By James A. Millward, professor of intersocietal history at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service

The demands voiced by demonstrators across China have evolved beyond outrage at the deaths in a fire in a sealed-off Urumqi apartment building and beyond even calls to lift zero-COVID lockdown policies. But since the horror of that event was the initial catalyst, we should not forget that we still don’t know critical things about what happened in that high-rise in the largely Uyghur Jiaxiangyuan district of Urumqi.

Most discussion has focused on whether zero-COVID “seal and control” measures contributed to the deaths. But it remains unclear just how many people died or who they were. Although the Western press has largely followed the official Chinese announcement of 10 dead, nine injured in the fire, there is little reason to credit that official announcement and good reason to be skeptical. The same officials also denied that doors and entryways in the apartment block were sealed and blamed deaths on the “weak self-rescue skills” of the victims. People across China—many with experience of sealed-off apartment buildings themselves—responded to these claims with derisive disbelief. Moreover, authorities in Urumqi already on Nov. 25 detained a 24-year-old woman for posts on WeChat questioning the official casualty numbers. Thus, one of the first official acts, even before the demonstrations took off, was a public threat designed to support the questionable official death toll.

Uyghur sources, who deserve more attention from Western press, have been talking to hospital workers and police in Urumqi and from this are estimating dozens of deaths. The Uyghur Times believes 44 people perished.

Qemernisahan Abdurahman and four of her children died in the fire. In a statement, the World Uyghur Congress said the children’s father, Eli Memetniyaz, and the couple’s older son, Eliyas Eli, are serving prison sentences of 12 and 10 years, respectively. For this family, the tragedy began before the fire, even before the zero-COVID lockdown. (We know details about this family because a nephew abroad was informed of their deaths by a neighbor.)

The generally cautious Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service uses “at least 10” but reports that RFA Uyghur “called police stations near the site of the fire in Urumqi and was given varying death tolls from the blaze. ‘Nine burned to death. More than a dozen died of suffocation, with a total is around 26,’ said a police official at Ittipaq (In Chinese, Tuanjie) Road station.”

The death toll, then, should be reported as “at least 10 and potentially dozens of deaths.”

The connection to Xinjiang, where the lockdown has continued longer but with less attention than anywhere else, is one of the most extraordinary things about the current protests. They are taking place simultaneously in multiple Chinese cities, and participants include factory workers, university students, and city residents, thus comprising the kind of cross-society, nationwide protest the CCP fears. But they are also pan-ethnic, and that, too, is rare. It is telling that after the first night of Shanghai protests, authorities took down the Urumqi Road sign around which protesters had congregated. The CCP is attempting to erase “Urumqi” from Shanghai geography just as it has tried to erase so much Uyghur culture from Xinjiang. This is a symbolic connection that the authorities want to sever: Solidarity between Han and Uyghur is frightening for the CCP.


Xi’s Policies Caused Predictable Outrage

By Geremie R. Barmé, historian, translator, and author

In “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” published by ChinaFile on Feb. 10, 2020, Xu Zhangrun predicted that Xi’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic would be devastating for China socially and economically. He also thought that popular outrage at the government’s harsh policies and protest was inevitable. Below is an excerpt from the essay:

The ancients observed that “it’s easier to dam a river than it is to silence the voice of the people.” Regardless of how good they are at controlling the internet, they can’t keep all 1.4 billion mouths in China shut. Yet again, our ancestors will be proved right. Nonetheless, since all of their calculations are solely made on the basis of maintaining control, they have convinced themselves that such crude exercises of power will suffice. They have been fooled by the self-deception of “The Leader,” but theirs is a confidence that deceives no one. Faced with this virus, the Leader has flailed about seeking answers with ever greater urgency, exhausting those who are working on the front line, spreading the threat to people throughout the land. Ever more vacuous slogans are chanted—Do this! Do that!—overweening and with prideful purpose, He garners nothing but derision and widespread mockery in the process. This is a stark demonstration of the kind of political depletion that I am addressing here. The last seven decades [of the People’s Republic] have taught the people repeated lessons about the hazards of totalitarian government. This time around, the coronavirus is proving the point once more and in a most undeniable fashion.

One can only hope that our fellow Chinese, both young and old, will finally take these lessons to heart and abandon their long-practiced slavish acquiescence. It is high time that people relied on their own rational judgment and refused to sacrifice themselves again on the altar of the power holders. Otherwise, you will all be no better than fields of garlic chives; you will give yourselves up to being harvested by the blade of power, now as in the past. [Note: The term “garlic chives” is used as a metaphor to describe the common people who are regarded by the power-holders as an endlessly renewable resource.]

… [As] a result of the endless political purges of recent years [carried out by Xi and his deputy Wang Qishan in the name of an “anti-corruption campaign”] and along with the revival of “Red Culture,” the people in the system who have now been promoted are in-house party hacks who slavishly obey orders. Consequently, both the kind of professional commitment and expertise previously valued within the nation’s technocracy, along with the ambition people previously nurtured to seek promotion on the basis of their actual achievements, have been gradually undermined, and, with no particular hue and cry, they have now all but disappeared. The One Who Must Be Obeyed who talks about the importance of transmitting “red genes” through a reliable party body politic, the man with the ultimate decision-making power and sign-off authority, has created an environment in which the system as a whole has fallen into desuetude. What’s left is a widespread sense of hopelessness.


The A4 Revolution Is About More Than Zero-COVID

By Teng Biao, visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at NYU School of Law

One of the most remarkable aspects of the protests that have taken place across China over the past few days—the character and size of which have not been seen in China since 1989—are the blank sheets of white paper demonstrators have held aloft as they marched.

A sheet of A4 paper may be popular because it’s the easiest banner to come by, but it has become a symbol so powerful that people have now dubbed the protests the “A4 Revolution.”

The blankness says nothing, but everything is already there. People experiencing COVID-19 and Xi’s rule in China can easily read what is not written: anger, humiliation, sorrow, empathy, and the desire for freedom. Numerous aspects of life under recurring lockdowns connected in the sudden protests: intensified censorship, concentration camps, Xi’s lifelong rule, corruption, economic stagnation, the death of the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, the 27 lives lost in Guizhou’s quarantine bus crash, and the lone warrior on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge. Almost everyone in China has suffered under zero-COVID, and this collective suffering is the widespread and powerful psychological basis of the ongoing protests.

I coined the term “high-tech totalitarianism” to emphasize the effectiveness and pervasiveness of total control in China empowered by artificial intelligence, big data, DNA collection, surveillance cameras, social credit, government-controlled social media, and health codes. Alongside them, censorship and brainwashing have become more aggressive, and the crackdown on dissenting activities has become more brutal. All of these tactics increase the difficulty and risk that comes with resistance. However, the A4 Revolution has shattered people’s assumption that mass protests are unlikely, if even possible, under such unprecedented surveillance.

Abandoning the zero-COVID policy will, on the one hand, harm Xi’s legitimacy—and with it the legitimacy of the CCP—and, on the other hand, will motivate the protesters. When protests work, people organize more. But the unreasonable policy has and will immensely hurt China’s economy, which undergirds the CCP’s political stability. Xi will not easily give up the zero-COVID policy for another important reason: He and the party elites have found that COVID-19 provides a perfect pretext for putting everyone under stricter control.

How far and in what direction the protests in many parts of China will go depends not only on the courageous citizens in the streets but also on those who are planning to act, those who are reporting and spreading the messages, and those who are hesitating to crack down on the freedom fighters. For sure, fear is waning, and dissatisfaction with Xi and the party is accumulating. When the CCP’s “performance legitimacy” encounters trouble, so does its ability to rule by fear.

This article was produced in conjunction with ChinaFile.

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Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.