Citizens streamed into the streets to express their anger at the harsh Covid safety policies. What makes this notable and unprecedented: they openly called for the resignation of President Xi and the Communist Party.
Editor’s note: Splainer is often ahead of the news curve—as with this story. Last week, we did a big two-part series on the rising anger at China’s zero Covid policy,which has ruined the financial health of both the country and its people. Part 1 explained the policy—and the violent protests it sparked at Apple’s largest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou. Part 2 explained why Xi will not budge on a policy that has proved disastrous for the nation—and his reputation. Together, they have all the context you need for today’s Big Story.
A quick recap
The numbers: China has reported a record number of new Covid cases for the fourth consecutive day—hitting 39,791 on Saturday. But thanks to strict pandemic controls, the number of deaths to date is only 5,233. As of November 26, mainland China had confirmed 307,802 cases with symptoms. Case loads are jumping in all the big cities—including Beijing where the number has risen by 66% in just one day.
The zero Covid policy: The rising cases have challenged the government’s commitment to its ‘zero Covid’ policy—which dictates a strict regimen of lockdowns, forced quarantines and mandatory testing until there are zero cases in an area. On Wednesday, in a rare show of public fury, workers at Foxconn’s iPhone factory in Zhengzhou rioted against the country’s strict pandemic rules, which had left them trapped on the premises. While in Guangzhou, protesters broke out of locked-down buildings to confront health workers and ransack food provisions. The protests have since spread far and wide—and become ever angrier.
The great Chinese lockdown: As of August, at least 74 cities with a combined population of 313 million have imposed lockdowns that cover entire cities, districts or multiple neighbourhoods. The shutdowns have come at a high price to citizens—who have been denied access to food and medical supplies—and even turned away by hospitals. Vast numbers have been thrown into overcrowded quarantine centres—and in many places, children have been taken away from their parents.
Key point to note: Lockdowns last until zero new infections are reported.
The Shanghai debacle: All of this suffering became visible when Shanghai—a city with a population of 25 million—was locked down for eight weeks, starting in March! The frustration, agony and desperation of ordinary citizens was captured in a video titled ‘Voices of April’. It was the first to document the brutal impact of lockdowns in China. The copies were quickly erased from social media—but remain available outside the country. See the version with English subtitles below:
The trigger: The fire that lit the rage
It all started with a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi—the capital of the far western region of Xinjiang. The blaze—sparked by a power strip on the 15th floor—killed 10 people and injured nine. Accurate accounts are hard to come by in a heavily censored China—where the consequences of speaking to the media can be severe. But the city’s residents soon became convinced that the deaths were a result of strict Covid rules. This is an unverified clip of the fire:
The people’s version: Much of Xinjiang—home to 25 million people—has been under lockdown for more than 100 days. Covid regulations often barricade buildings and lock doors to seal residents inside. This unverified clip appears to show how these work:
The government’s version: At a late-night news conference, authorities admitted that the fire trucks sent to quell the fire were not able to get close to the building—due to cars parked outside. The cars could not be moved since their batteries were dead—as they had not been used for months. But officials insisted that the fire doors were open—and some people did not escape because they were unfamiliar with fire exits. But they also promised to ease the lockdown “in stages” in the coming days.
Important to note: Urumqi was the second major fire to be reported this week. On Monday, a fire in a factory in Henan Province killed 38 people—making it one of the deadliest fires in recent years.
An odd footnote: In their infinite wisdom, the same officials removed the street sign that marked the building’s location:
A wildfire of protests
Down with Xi: The protests first began in Urumqi on Friday—when enraged residents took to the streets—as clips of the fire began to go viral. But they soon spread to other cities over the weekend—including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou. And the chants soon became more defiant and radical. While in Urumqi, people yelled “End the lockdown!,” in Shanghai, people shouted at the police, “Communist party! Step down! Xi Jinping! Step down!” In the clip below, they are yelling: ‘Down with the party! Down with Xi Jinping!’ Free Xinjiang!’
Point to note: Some reports suggest that the demand for Xi’s head isn’t widespread. Most people just want the lockdowns to end—and a return to some semblance of normalcy.
The blank paper protest: Many demonstrators held up blank pieces of paper, which have become unusual symbols of defiance. They are a nod to strict censorship rules that ban political slogans and were first used in Hong Kong. As one student put it: "The white paper represent everything we want to say but cannot say.” See an example below:
The flower protest: One of the most popular clips is that of a man holding flowers in the middle of a road:
“‘We need to be braver! Am I breaking the law by holding flowers?’ he asked the crowd, who shouted ‘No!’ in reply. ‘We Chinese need to be braver!’ he said to the applause of the crowd. ‘So many of us were arrested yesterday. Are they without job or without family? We should not be afraid!’”
He is soon grabbed and arrested by the police. See the clip below:
The ‘Tank Man’ moment: The most infamous moment in Communist history is when a young man stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing—and was mowed down in front of the entire world. Some protesters reenacted that incident—but in front of government vehicles, as below:
The clampdown: For now, the government appears to have been caught off-guard. While there have been a number of detentions, it is unclear just how brutal the reprisals will be. According to Guardian columnist Patrick Wintour, Xi is unlikely to tolerate this galling show of defiance—perhaps because of this: “With all his recent rhetoric of the great rejuvenation of China, the decline of the west and the CCP’s power to change the course of history, he now risks looking mortal, and dangerously out of touch.”
The bottomline: The Communist Party has squelched far greater uprisings in the past—with swift and ruthless use of force. While the numbers are still small, what makes these protests potentially powerful is a cause that touches almost every citizen:
“[T]he pervasiveness of China’s Covid restrictions has created a focus for anger that transcends class and geography. Migrant workers struggling with food shortages and joblessness during weeks-long lockdowns, university students held on campuses, urban professionals chafing at travel restrictions—the roots of their frustrations are the same.”
In 1989, students, workers, small traders and residents came together in a powerful movement that took over Tiananmen Square. If it happens again, it will be a nightmare for Xi and the Communist Party. In the era of social media, there will be far too many Tiananmen Square moments to hide.
For the latest on the protests, read New York Times, CNN or Al Jazeera. The Guardian has an excellent analysis of whether these protests can do real damage to Xi. Wired has a good piece on censorship around the real number of deaths caused by the Shanghai lockdown. Washington Post has more on how Chinese spam is trying to drown out protest-related content on Twitter.