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Protests spread across China amid zero-COVID anger

William Yang
November 27, 2022

A deadly apartment fire in Xinjiang has triggered a wave of anti-zero-COVID protests across several cities in China. How will the Communist Party react as the movement gains momentum?

Police officers stand guard as people protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions
Protests have taken place in Beijing (above) and in major cities like Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and ChengduImage: Thomas Peter/REUTERS

"The Communist Party, step down. Xi Jinping, step down!" Those were the slogans chanted by hundreds of protesters in China's commercial capital, Shanghai, on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, as they gathered to demand the Chinese government end the strict pandemic control measures that have been imposed on several cities across the world's second-largest economy.

The protest is part of a nationwide response to Beijing's strict "zero-COVID strategy," after a deadly fire in the western Xinjiang region killed at least 10 people earlier this week. Though authorities in Xinjiang have opened up some neighborhoods in the regional capital, Urumqi, where the deadly fire took place, public anger and discontent have already spread across the country.

One Shanghai protester, who asked to only be identified as Jason due to safety concerns, told DW that he decided to join the protest in Shanghai after reading about the event late Saturday night. "When I arrived at the scene around 23:40, police had already sealed off the roads leading to the protest site, and a group of protesters was surrounded by a small number of policemen, who were urging them to leave," he said.

While some protesters remained calm and quiet, Jason said, others were chanting slogans calling for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down. "There were people in the crowd who were suspected to be plainclothes police reportedly creating divisions among protesters," Jason added.

COVID cases hit new record in China

Another Shanghai demonstrator, who asked to be identified as Andy, told DW that most protesters joined the demonstration to urge the government to end the strict lockdowns, which some believe was the main reason for the 10 deaths in the deadly fire in Xinjiang. "I think the only demand in all the recent mass protests is to lift the ban and return to normal life," he said. "The demand for regime change is an idea held by a very small number of people."

Some experts have said the protests reflect the impact of China's COVID-19 policies, which have restricted freedom of movement and freedom of expression for many people. "The Urumqi fire shows that it's now threatening people's personal safety," said Kai Ong, a researcher at Amnesty International. "Previously, people already have problems accessing health care, but now it has gone to the extent that people are losing their lives because of the policies."

Government 'could impose stricter controls'

As well as Shanghai, protests have taken place on college campuses in major cities like Beijing, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Protesters have demanded an end to the lockdowns while referencing the protest slogan "I don't want PCR test. I want freedom" that was featured on a banner in Beijing last month.

Despite the momentum across the country, Andy doubts the protests will change the government's course. "From my experience and my knowledge of the Chinese Communist Party, protests like this would be quickly dismantled and won't achieve the goal of ending lockdowns," he told DW.

Jason agrees with Andy's concerns, adding that since people in China lack tools like the Telegram social network to effectively organize protests, the scenes on Saturday were chaotic and lacked unity. He warned that Saturday night's protest may push the Chinese government to adopt more heavy-handed measures.

"Last night's demonstration definitely created a very strong sense of threat to the Chinese government and they could impose stricter controls on Shanghai and on China as a whole," he told DW. "Most people were not aware of the risks of this demonstration, and the few who were aware had left early by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m."

This frame grab from eyewitness video footage made available via AFPTV on November 27, 2022 shows demonstrators shouting slogans as police hold their positions
Confronting authorities in Shanghai, some protesters called for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step downImage: AFPTV/AFP

'This time really feels different'

While some protesters have expressed doubt about the durability of the protests, others in China think the movement has generated some optimism. The scale of the protest has exceeded the expectations of many Chinese people. "I thought I would never hear the slogans that were shouted in my life," said a Shanghai resident, who asked to be named Emma.

"In the beginning, when people were leaving angry comments on the internet, I was still pessimistic that it would be the same as before, which is that the comments would be deleted from the internet the next day and that people would soon forget about it," she told DW.

"But I didn't expect the protests online to be endless, and that people would take to the street at night in Shanghai. I was really, really moved. I felt that this time was really different. Even if it was only for one night, it was still very different from before," Emma added.

Ong from Amnesty international said the scale of the protests could push the Chinese government to review their existing COVID-19 policies. "We have seen the local government in Urumqi claiming that they have had the local outbreak under control," she said. "The protests push the government to immediately give a response but I think it's unlikely for the central government to respond to calls for regime change."

Hours after protesters in Shanghai dispersed in the early morning hours on Sunday, they returned to the same area in the afternoon, continuing to call for an end to the lockdown while holding up blank pieces of white paper. "Yesterday's protest has ignited the torch and today more torches will be lit up. The world will become brighter," one protester named Lin told DW. "The whole of China is lighting up torches today."

A young woman holds a piece of blank white paper above her head, amid a group
Protesters have been holding up pieces of blank paper to voice their opposition to the COVID measuresImage: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

However, reports of arrests have come out of Shanghai, and Lin said the authorities were trying to push demonstrators out of the main protest area amid clashes with the police. "Many roads leading up to the main protest area have been blocked and police have made some arrests as they try to push protesters away," he said.

In one video widely circulating on social media platforms, a man giving a speech in the middle of the road while holding a flower is suddenly pushed to one side by a group of police and arrested. Even though some protesters are seen trying to intervene, they fail to get the police to release the protester.

Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, said the Chinese authorities seem to have been caught off guard by the protests, and he thinks Beijing may expect the energy and frustration to peter out. "I suppose there is a chance of a crackdown, should events continue," he said.

"The Chinese Communist Party and especially under Xi is far less tolerant of protests and apparent challenges to their authority. Things are still unfolding, and clear information is harder to come by at this point," he added.

Edited by: Ben Knight