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China's COVID crackdown: Can the protests keep momentum?

William Yang Taipei
November 29, 2022

The countrywide protests are an unprecedented challenge to Beijing's zero-COVID policy. Authorities are taking drastic measures to keep the movement from spreading any further.

A man is arrested while people gathering on a street in Shanghai
Massive protests against pandemic policy have spread around China, but it's unclear how long they will persistImage: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of people in cities across China are fed up with the government's strict "zero-COVID" policies, and  they're taking big risks to voice their discontent on streets and college campuses.

While most of the world is learning to live with coronavirus, China continues to mandate lockdowns, limit freedom of movement and close businesses in places where new cases appear.

A recent rise in COVID infections across the country means more people have been subject to restrictions. Their frustration has resulted in the largest outpouring of public protest China has seen in decades.

Some protesters have gone as far to call for President Xi Jinping to step down, in a rare direct challenge to his leadership. Coordinated displays of public disobedience are uncommon in China and are a sign of the pressure many people are under due to repeated lockdowns and economic disruptions.

Economic toll of zero-COVID policies

Protesters in the capital, Beijing, told DW that many people have lost their jobs and businesses during the pandemic.

"Many people have mortgages, tuition fees for their children and medical expenses for elderly family members. We didn't get many subsidies from the government, and we must shoulder most of the costs," said one protester who wished to be identified as Yang.

Another protester, who goes by Wang, said strict pandemic measures have made it hard for people to make ends meet. "The current situation in China is that poor people will become poorer while rich people and the government will never care about our well-being. We need jobs to raise the family and pay mortgages."

The trickle-down effects of constant lockdowns are taking a toll on China's economy, with consumer spending stifled and unemployment rising. A recent lockdown at Foxconn, Apple's largest iPhone manufacturing plant in Henan province, sent workers fleeing and is set to disrupt production. It was another example of how international supply chains are also affected by China's continued hard-handed approach to containing the coronavirus.

A screenshot of people carrying bags from a factory
Videos posted on social media showed workers at the Foxconn plant fleeing a lockdownImage: Hangpai Xingyang/dpa/picture alliance

However, despite the protests and economic disruption, there is little sign authorities in Beijing will back off from zero-COVID anytime soon. The policy has been repeatedly touted by the Chinese government as a successful model of pandemic prevention, which has saved millions of lives.

During the 20th congress of China's ruling Communist Party, held in October, President Xi reiterated that China is committed to "put people and lives first and adhere to dynamic zero-COVID."

However, the government's narrative — that its pandemic policy has been accepted by the public as an unimpeachable success — is being frayed by the scale of the current protests.

"First and foremost, the cause of these protests is frustration, as people have been waiting for years for authorities to ease these restrictions, and they are seeing and feeling the effects of these restrictions all around them," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

"People want to be free and they want to have a say about what's going on around them. That's a very human desire and I think it's a combination of these factors that has brought people out in extraordinary numbers," she told DW.

'Our lives could be destroyed by Xi'

The Chinese government has responded to the scale of the protests in recent days by increasing the number of police in major cities. Barriers and roadblocks are being erected to prevent access to popular protest sites. Police are also randomly checking people's phones on the streets.

Blue barrier walls seen on a city street in Shanghai
Police have set up barriers around protest zones in ShanghaiImage: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the crackdown by authorities, protesters in Beijing told DW that the courage and bravery shown by the protesters can inspire others.

"Even though I may not be brave enough to directly participate in the protests, I still try to stand on the side to let the protesters know that they are not alone," a Beijing woman who wished to remain unidentified told DW.

"Our freedom has been restricted for almost three years now, and many people have died from the disasters extended from the zero-COVID policy. If we let the situation continue, our freedom and our lives could be destroyed by Xi Jinping and this government."

"We could become the 10 people who died in the Urumqi fire," she added, referring to the blaze that broke in an apartment block last Thursday in Urumqi, the regional capital of China's northwestern Xinjiang province. The incident raised questions about whether COVID restrictions had blocked the fire brigade from responding sooner, and whether people were unable to flee because they were locked inside their apartments.

While some demonstrators have directly come out to demand that Xi step down, other protesters have used more subtle ways to voice their discontent. Raising pieces of blank paper at protests is a symbolic message to China's censors, who seek to erase any messages of dissent. 

"There was a blank paper protest in Russia, too, and this is something that's circulating," said Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine. "It lends itself to a kind of mockery if authorities move against blank sheets of paper."

People cover the faces with sheets of paper
People have been holding up blank pieces of paper to protest COVID restrictions Image: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

How far can the movement go?

The scale of the protests has presented Xi with a dilemma, as he is forced to choose between upholding the zero-COVID strategy or giving in to public demands.

"Xi Jinping doesn't want to end the zero-COVID policy because, for him, it is a question of his political legitimacy," said Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao.

"On the other hand, if China continues to uphold the zero-COVID strategy, it will not only provoke anger among the people but also cause huge losses to the Chinese economy. That would pose a threat to Chinese politics and the political stability of the authorities," he told DW.

With the growing risks facing Chinese citizens, demonstrators also have different views on the prospect of the movement going forward.

Protester Yang said if Beijing chooses to escalate the degree of its oppression, it could lead to greater resistance, which may end up causing fierce conflicts.

However, Wang said if authorities respond with any relaxing of COVID measures, it could quickly quell mass protests.

"The movement has already spread to second and third-tier cities in China, as many neighborhoods are organizing protests on their own," she said. "While there are many demands from the public now, if authorities can ease pandemic control measures soon, the public anger will dial down a lot."

Rare protests in China spark solidarity

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, told DW that President Xi is facing a pivotal moment. Yang said if Xi chooses to take a harsher approach against the protests, it could affect his popular support, which may reinforce the growing dissatisfaction with his policies and leadership.

"Xi could do something different. He could draw energy from the dissatisfaction and discontent and help China transition to the next phase. Some tough decisions will have to be made and I think that's something Xi has to make a choice on," the expert said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn