As COVID case numbers soar once again, China is reckoning with a veritable wave of protests that have broken out across the country – the largest it’s seen in decades. While demonstrations began as pushback against China’s ‘Zero COVID’ policies, demands have morphed into broader cries for freedom.
A week ago, a fire broke out in an apartment complex in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province. Ten individuals died and nine more suffered further injuries. But the tragedy also proved to be a spark for numerous protests, with claims emergency responders left people locked in their burning homes due to strict COVID protocols.
The Protests: from ‘No More Lockdowns’ to ‘No More Xi Jinping’
Since then, protests have been held in most of China’s biggest cities, calling for an easing off on Xi Jinping’s draconian Zero COVID standard.
But for many, the protests have morphed into a chance to vocalise broader demands for freedom. There have been calls for democracy in China, and for the abdication of supreme leader Xi Jinping.
And participants have been getting creative in their expressions of dissent.
Nicknamed the “A4 revolution”, many protestors are holding up blank sheets of white A4 paper, in reference to the censorship imposed on protest by the government. Some have gone a step further, printing out the Friedman equation on their A4s – the name of which sounds like ‘free/freed man’.
On Urumqi road in Shanghai, one woman walked three alpacas on leashes. Alpacas are a long-standing symbol of dissent in China – in 2009, Baidu users would post pictures of the animals in response to tightening internet censorship. Also known as the ‘grass mud horse’, the Chinese name for the animal, ‘Cao Ni Ma’, is a homonym for “go f*ck your mother”.
As Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, observed, “people across China are taking extraordinary risks to demand their human rights”.
The Government Response
The CCP’s response to the surge of dissent has been mixed. At the highest level, officials are thus far staying silent.
“They’re saying as little as possible for as long as possible,” remarked Cambridge Professor William Hurst. “The moment that the central leadership takes an official line, they are dignifying the protests with an official response and admitting that they must be reckoned with, which gives them a status that they would rather deny them.”
But they’re certainly not ignoring the situation entirely. A Tuesday meeting of China’s top security officials concluded in a resolution to crack down on “hostile forces”. The CCP has also resolved to ramp up vaccination of China’s elderly, in an effort to address the original cause of the protests.
On the streets, hundreds of police officers are patrolling locations deemed at risk of rallies, and rounding up suspected protestors to give written statements at police stations.
Some people are being stopped on the street, checked for VPNs on their phones, and made to delete apps like Telegram and Twitter, which have been used to organise and document the protests.
Universities have been under particular scrutiny, with students at the prestigious Tsinghua Uni (Xi’s alma mater) ‘permitted’ to go on winter break early.
Online, government-backed bots have been spamming social media feeds with loyalist rhetoric and pornographic material alongside city names to clog documentation of the rallies.
While the government has thus far shown restraint (by Chinese standards) in its response, the Hong Kong precedent has made some wary of pushing too hard.
But as UTS associate professor Chongyi Feng pointed out, the authorities aren’t the only ones adapting their strategies. In reference to the creativity and fluidity of the wave of dissent, she noted that “[Protestors] learnt something from Hong Kong. Be water.”
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