On November 24, ten people died in a fire at a high-rise apartment building in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region. The tragedy might not have made it past local headlines, barring the fact that like many cities across China, Urumqi has been under lockdown for weeks. Immediately, netizens began speculating that COVID-19 lockdown procedures had prevented firefighters from reaching the burning building – or residents had been prevented from escaping.
China has seen other tragedies caused by COVID-19’s “dynamic zero” policy: a bus that crashed on a mountainous highway at 2am while carrying passengers into their forced quarantine. A 3-year-old who died when his father was prevented from seeing a doctor. A 5 month old who shared the same tragic fate. Pregnant women and elderly men who died because hospitals refused to admit them without a recent negative test. And perhaps the first moment of national mourning during COVID-19: the February 2020 death of Wuhan-based doctor Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for warning his friends about the new coronavirus in late 2019.
Each of these tragic events sparked an outpouring of grief and anger online — where it was quickly censored.
However, the fire in Urumqi prompted a different reaction. In cities across the country — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan and more — hundreds of people took to the streets demanding an end to the zero-COVID policy. Their grievances started concretely: demands to “let us out” of locked apartments, complaints about price gouging during the lockdown, pleas for China to join the rest of the maskless, free-roaming world.
Catch up on the story of the week and develop stories to watch across Asia Pacific.
Get the newsletter
But the protests quickly turned into widespread demands for freedom, human rights and democracy. “We don’t want a dictatorship, we don’t want a personality cult!” Demonstrators in Beijing chanted on the way to Tiananmen Square.
Perhaps most worrying for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities was that the protests — though spontaneous and loosely organized — shared a common symbolism, indicating they were mutually aware and built on each other. Some protesters chanted slogans first aired at a rare in-person protest on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge just ahead of the 20th party congress: “We want to eat, not do PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns.” Many protesters also held up blank sheets of paper at their demonstrations, a protest tactic also seen in Hong Kong that serves as an indictment of censorship.
A slogan used by protesters in Beijing referred specifically to the Urumqi fire: “Today we are all Xinjiang people.” Unmentioned was the possibility that the chanting could also have been a reference to the draconian surveillance and detention policies which has been targeting Xinjiang’s native Uyghurs for over five years. It is revealing – and troubling – that the imprisonment of potentially a million Uyghurs did not provoke the same response as the death of 10 people (at least five of whom were Uyghurs).
As I have written, many Han Chinese are deeply skeptical that crimes against humanity are taking place in Xinjiang, despite a mountain of evidence (including documents from government agencies and police departments about their own policies). Many Han Chinese I spoke to acknowledge the widespread arrests and detentions, but firmly believe that the Uyghurs involved were guilty of something (exactly what remains generally vague).
This particular problem has complex ethnic dimensions, but in general, many Han Chinese appear to have little sympathy for the plight of political activists and human rights advocates who have been arrested by the state. As Foreign Policy’s James Palmer put it in a 2017 article examining Chinese public opinion toward one of the country’s most famous dissidents, “The Chinese believe Liu Xiaobo asked for it.”
As Palmer wrote:
Many Chinese, like other residents of authoritarian states, do not want to face what the authorities could do to them at any moment. When the government oppresses people, it must be the victim’s fault. You should have known what would happen. You shouldn’t have been so arrogant. They should have realized who they were dealing with.
And that is exactly why the current protests are so strong: Few believe that the victims of the zero-COVID policy were to blame for their own deaths (and pro-regime supporters who claim otherwise are roundly ridiculed). Instead, almost everyone in China can imagine that the same ugly fate will befall them or their loved ones through no fault of their own. To paraphrase Palmer, Zero COVID has forced the average person to confront what the authorities could do to them at any moment.
A post that went viral on Chinese social media made this clear and referred to some of the most famous tragedies caused by zero-COVID:
The one who jumped off a building was me
I was the one on the overturned bus
The one who left Foxconn on foot was me
I was the one who froze to death in the street
The one who had no income for several months and could not afford vegetables was me,
The one who died in the fire was me
And if neither of them were me, then next time it will be me.
Most Han Chinese felt able to safely ignore the plight of the Uyghurs because they could not imagine it happening to them. But they are very scared of the way Zero COVID has been killing people like them.
In addition, the protests have also debunked one of the CCP’s pet excuses: that any dissent will be encouraged by “hostile foreign forces.” That was the line used by the CCP to dismiss the 1989 pro-democracy movement, recurring ethnic protests in Tibet and Xinjiang, and most recently the 2019 Hong Kong protests.
When the accusation is used against the other, it is easier to accept. If it’s used against you, you’ll take it as a lie.
When someone from a protest group in Beijing suggested that the march had “enemy foreign forces among us,” protesters were outraged. “Was the fire in Xinjiang started by hostile foreign forces?” replied one. “Was the bus in Guizhou overturned by hostile foreign forces?”
“Did enemy foreign troops force you to be here?” asked another. The crowd roared back, “NO!”
Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian blogger currently imprisoned in China, once told me that “in China, everyone is one step away from becoming a dissident.” He explained that one only has to deal with the dark side of the system – an uncle jailed for demanding his rightful wages, a family home set for demolition, a mother being beaten by the police, because she sells vegetables on the street – to demonstrate to people that in the current system there is ample opportunity for abuse but no chance for redress.
Zero COVID has brought this reality to a large number of Chinese. People have felt the heavy hand of the state crushing their lives – and realized that they have no power or redress in the face of abuse. And now those protesting zero-COVID face further abuse: dozens of arrests have been reported, although there are no official figures as of this writing. (Chinese media have remained silent on the protests, preferring to pretend they are not happening rather than giving them a signal boost by denouncing the demonstrations.)
It’s still too early to say how long the current protests will last and whether they will bring about lasting change (my guess, for what little it’s worth: they won’t, both because Xi Jinping really wants to believes zero-COVID as well as because it cannot be influenced by popular dissatisfaction). But zero-COVID is already having a tremendous impact on Chinese society, causing a massive rise in awareness of the injustices being perpetrated by the Chinese government – and the potential for those injustices to hit any person at any time.