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What China's zero COVID protests tell us about China today

People sing slogans while gathering on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
People sing slogans while gathering on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

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Across China, remarkable public demonstrations against the country’s zero COVID policy.

Frustrations have been building for some time.

But they spilled over into protest after 10 people died in a November apartment fire, because, family members say, they were not allowed to leave their homes.

“That is a very visceral fear for anyone who’s experienced zero-COVID,” Yangyang Cheng says. “Some of them having even their homes or their apartment buildings being boarded up and their fire escapes being wired shut, not being able to escape.”

Today, On Point: Could this be a new era of public discontent in China that reaches beyond Bejing’s COVID-zero policy?


Dr. Yangyang Cheng, fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and a frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations. (@yangyang_cheng)

Also Featured

Zhou Fengsuo, president of the human rights charity Humanitarian China. He was one of the 21 student leaders of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square whose arrest was ordered by the Beijing Public Security Bureau. (@ZhouFengSuo)

Interview Highlights

On media representation of the protests

Dr. Yangyang Cheng: “Massive nationwide protests did not just start in urban residences or on college campuses, but really started with the labor movement, with the migrant workers at the Foxconn plant, the world’s largest iPhone factory that’s located in Zhengzhou in central China. As well as among migrant worker communities in Guangdong. And then later … the immediate catalyst that triggered this nationwide protest is this fire in Urumqi that most directly impacted Uyghur communities and claimed Uyghur lives.

“And I think there is a lot of attention that is being paid to these protests in Western media. And sometimes there is these urban, college educated, middle class residents and college campuses are the ones that receive the most attention because they tend to slap slogans that are most legible to a Western audience. However, we should understand that there are many layers to these, and these protests have spread to well over a dozen Chinese cities. A lot of them are very material demands with very concrete demands. And some of these are also elevated to a more political ideological level, asking for a different form of governance. ”

I’m trying to break through the selective representations that we see in Western media and get a deeper understanding of what’s actually happening in China. What has it been like for people?

Dr. Yangyang Cheng: “Since you mentioned at the very beginning of the show that this is exactly 1,000 days since the WHO announced the pandemic, and it’s exactly three years since the first cases were reported in Wuhan. And so I think to understand the current dynamic, it’s helpful to zoom out a little bit and I’ll take a very quick walk through this, that at the very beginning, it was the Chinese government, the local officials, starting with the local officials, but then also to higher levels of government, were trying to cover up the initial outbreak.

“And were being ineffective in stemming the initial outbreak in the first few weeks. And then so that action caused a lot of public anger and discontent, especially after one of the whistleblower doctors, Dr. Li Wenliang, died of COVID later at the very beginning of 2020. And so we saw massive protests online on our social media among the Chinese citizens. And then the government quickly implemented lockdown policies across the country and within several weeks to a few months of very effectively contained the outbreak.

“And through that process, the Chinese government was able to rewrite a narrative into one of triumph and through much of 2020 and basically entire year of 2021, that narrative has been so successful that the Chinese people, by and large, were having this renewed sense of confidence or even a sense of pride that their government was being so effective in containing the pandemic. While a lot of other countries, especially Western countries like U.S. and countries in Europe, were having these massive outbreaks and very high death tolls. However, because this is a pandemic, and this virus mutates and changes. So a lot of this dynamic has shifted.

“At the end of 2021, with the emergence of Omicron virus and the other types of pandemic dynamics that is so much more transmittable on one hand, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to cause such severe illnesses on immediate term. Though, the longer-term effects are still to be determined. And so with these new variants, some other countries, such as like Taiwan or New Zealand, that have implemented a rather strict zero-COVID policy in the beginning of the pandemic have shifted their approach from prevention to mitigation.

“However, this is when the Chinese government doubled down on its zero-COVID policy to really trying to stanch this Omicron outbreak. And this is where through 2022 this year, that we see these very, very stringent lockdown policies are being implemented and how these close contacts are being interpreted in such a way that even if you are living in a building, a different floor or even different unit has one suspected case, and the entire building may go all under lockdown.

“And in a lot of these very strict lockdown cases, people are really barred from leaving their apartment buildings. So there is a very serious concern with regards to access to food, to basic necessities and to basic medical care. We see reports about people having medical emergencies, asthma attacks, heart attacks, people in labor who are being denied a medical care, lifesaving medical care, because they didn’t have a negative PCR COVID test within the past 24 hours or so.

“And so this has been a lived reality for a lot of people in China throughout this year, if their cities have or their districts and communities have undergone very strict lockdowns. And for people who have not experienced the direct effect of the more stringent lockdowns, they still live under this constant fear that this lockdown might take place. And so this is a very, very different situation compared with what some may have experienced here in the U.S. in 2020 with regards to the mask mandates or the stay-at-home advisories. And so what this zero COVID lockdown in China and the ensuing protests, one way I want to help maybe the audience understand this is this really can be interpreted as a form of prison break.”

Does this feel different from protest movements in China before?

Dr. Yangyang Cheng: “I do think that this moment, it is a new chapter or different episode. And there are analogies or similarities that can be drawn with different types of social movements and protests in China before. Including, I didn’t mention, but like a feminist and queer activism in China that has sustained social movement over the past several years. That to some extent, at the very beginning, had escaped the government’s radar because the government is patriarchal and didn’t understand that feminist and queer people would have so much power.

“And these kinds of protests have been sustained and have spread overseas Chinese communities, seeing transnational solidarity and we see elements of that in this wave of protests as well. So this is not something that just out of thin air. There are connections with a lot of a previous localized or national or transnational movements. However, with a confluence of factors, there is also indeed a distinct uniqueness to the current wave of protests.”

On a political awakening among China’s young people

Dr. Yangyang Cheng: “There are people who will continue with activism. There are people who chose different venues to seek ways to help their communities or seek means of political liberalization. So it is not a singular direction or singular form in times of social engagement and times of political activism. What I do think is important is, let me make this example. This nascent movement has been called the blank page movement, because the most symbolic element where the protest is, a lot of people were raising this blank sheet of paper as this sign of protest, but also as a way to show state to state oppression that things are being censored and cannot be said.

“And of course, our example was first, earlier, previously used in Hong Kong in 2020 at the national security law and also used earlier this year in Russia in protest against the invasion of Ukraine. So this is a global symbol and this blank sheet of paper by itself, it is like a mirror raised against the state, but it is also like an open door to a confluence of possibilities. And then just a few days ago on Twitter, I saw this video of this group of local residents in the northern Chinese city who are protesting against this local utilities company that was not providing sufficient heating.

“And these people are holding these sheets of paper with only one Chinese character written on it: cold. And I found that to be absolutely remarkable, that there is no grand ideological demand in this. This is a very, very concrete material demand. However, because of this broader movement, the people also have this new technique, this new language. And … I think these are these little details, little bursts of defiance and civic activism that really are very fascinating and also have a lot of potential.”

On the labor movement in China

Dr. Yangyang Cheng: “I think here this is a really important to note that since this is primarily a U.S. based audience, to recognize that the dramatic radical action of the Foxconn workers exposed that this is not just an issue about the authoritarian nature of the Chinese state. There is the complicity of global capital with regards to supply chains, with regards to labor exploitation. And these are the things that people in the U.S. can resonate with as well, and have means to take action and be in solidarity with workers in China and workers everywhere.”

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