After a bus accident killed at least 27 people being transferred to a Covid quarantine facility on Sunday, the Chinese public staged a widespread online protest against the government’s harsh pandemic policy.
It was a moment of collective grief and anger, with a heavy dose of shame, guilt and despair. After nearly three years of constant lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines, people asked how they could give the government the power to deprive them of their dignity, livelihood, mental health and even life; how they could fail to protect their loved ones from the “zero Covid” autocracy; and how long the craziness would last.
They quoted a 1940 poem by Bertolt Brecht, the German poet and playwright.
This is the year which people will talk about.
This is the year which people will be silent about.
The old see the young die.
The foolish see the wise die.
They shared on social media an old article with the headline “Evil is prevalent because we obey unconditionally.”
They asked themselves, “What can I do so I will not end up on that bus?”
For them, they could have easily been the 27 people forced to board the bus. The bus itself was a symbol of their collective “zero Covid” destiny: the country’s 1.4 billion people heading to an unknown destination. They felt they had lost control of their lives as the government pursued its policy relentlessly, even as the virus has become much milder and much of the world is eager to declare the end of the pandemic.
“We’re on that bus, too” has been one of the most shared comments since the crash.
The bus was transporting 47 people from the southwestern city of Guiyang when it rolled over in the early hours of Sunday, according to the local authorities. Along with the 27 people killed, the rest onboard were injured.
The government of Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, hasn’t released any information about the identity of the victims, saying only that the passengers were “pandemic-related” residents from the same district. It could mean that they were from areas where cases were detected, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they had the virus. According to Caixin magazine, a respected news organization, most of the passengers lived in the same residential compound.
Much of Guiyang had been under lockdown this month after several hundred Covid cases were detected. A local official said on Saturday that the city was running out of quarantine rooms and had transported more than 7,000 people to facilities in other parts of the province. Another 3,000 were in the process of being transferred. He admitted complaints about the long-distance transfers.
Angry social media users criticized the government, which on Friday had outlined a goal to achieve zero new cases within days. People questioned the rationale of centralized quarantines, late-night transfers and other aspects of the Covid policy. On Monday, the city lifted the lockdown in many districts.
“If it were just a traffic accident, the public wouldn’t be so angry,” a businessman wrote on his timeline on Chinese social media. “People are angry at the absurdity behind the accident: the endless waste of manpower and resources, the depletion of state money and the messing around of the public.”
The tragedy also triggered soul-searching about how the Chinese public could let it happen. Some people admitted that they were ashamed they hadn’t stood up to the “zero Covid” policy.
“The saddest part is not that we’re witnessing pointless deaths but that we’re living lowly, obedient and twisted lives and dying of lowly, obedient and twisted deaths,” a writer known by his pen name, Laifu, wrote on his timeline. “We’re not defending anything precious.”
A widely circulated video shows a few young children wearing hazmat suits that are too big and being sprayed with disinfectant before boarding a bus. “Kids, please remember,” the summary of the video wrote. “In the future when you pass by the graves of our generation, don’t spit. Simply urinate on us.”
The outpouring of emotion is probably the strongest since the night when the coronavirus whistle-blower, Dr. Li Wenliang, died in February 2020. But they didn’t do what they did that evening. They didn’t post videos of the “Les Misérables” song “Do You Hear the People Sing” because they have learned that their ruler doesn’t listen to them. They didn’t invoke their right to free speech, stipulated in the Chinese Constitution, because it has been harshly suppressed during the pandemic.
The grief, anger and despair are probably the last thing China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants in the run-up to an important Communist Party congress next month, when he is expected to get a norm-breaking third term. They cast into doubt the “zero Covid” policy that commands the participation of the entire country and throws the economy and society into chaos.
Top officials say the policy protects the old and the vulnerable. They argue it demonstrates that the country’s political system is superior to that of liberal democracies, which, they said, let many of their citizens die of Covid. As the party congress approaches, the government has stepped up punishment of people who skip mass testing or disobey other pandemic control measures.
“O pandemic! What crimes are committed in thy name!” Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University, wrote on his WeChat timeline, echoing the famous quote about liberty from the French Revolution.
Zheng Keqiang, former party secretary of Nanchang University, a major university in the southern province of Jiangxi, questioned the policy in a Weibo repost about the bus accident. The idea that what happened in Guiyang could happen anywhere in China was “truly horrible,” he wrote.
The government has censored and downplayed the reactions to the tragedy. At least two hashtags on Weibo related to the accident have about one billion views each, but neither is on the platform’s list of hot topics. Articles, posts and comments have been deleted. People reported that their social media accounts were suspended or deleted for sharing or posting information about the accident or the “zero Covid” policy. Many social media posts allow only candle emojis and comments like “R.I.P.”
“Stop saying, ‘Rest in peace,’” a Weibo user wrote. “Can they really rest in peace?”
Gao Yu, a senior editor at Caixin magazine, lashed out at the “zero Covid” policy after learning about the bus accident. He led a team of Caixin reporters involved in a series of in-depth stories about Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak in early 2020.
“Just because an extremely small number of people may die from Covid infections, a whole nation of 1.3 billion Chinese are held hostage,” he wrote on his WeChat timeline. “The whole world is declaring the end of the pandemic, but in this great nation, residents of an entire building can still be shipped to centralized quarantines just because of one infection case; a whole city can be forced into a standstill; the people of the whole country have to get used to getting swabbed regularly.”
“It’s time to wake up! It’s time to return to normal!” he wrote, concluding his long post. “Resolutely oppose to mass testing! Resolutely oppose to zero Covid!”
Mr. Gao’s WeChat account was deleted.
The day of the crash was the 91st anniversary of the Mukden Incident, a pretext to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. It’s known in China as a day of national humiliation. Some cities sounded sirens to mark the anniversary, and many celebrities posted on Weibo the slogan “Never forget the national humiliation!”
The 27 deaths gave the day a different meaning, some social media users wrote.
“National humiliation!” one magazine’s former editor in chief wrote on his WeChat timeline. “We feel humiliated not only because we’re being bullied but because we don’t dare to fight back.”
Most Chinese still fear the virus and probably still support the “zero Covid” policy even as the costs are weighing on everyone: the inconvenience of getting swabbed constantly, the frustration of needing health codes at every public venue and the loss of income, jobs and now, potentially, life.
The “zero Covid” farce had cost the Chinese their lives, dignity and normal way of living, a tech writer wrote on her WeChat timeline. But there was no way to escape it, and there was little they could do and would do about it.
“Tomorrow people will pretend nothing has happened,” she wrote. “They will force themselves to carry on and pray that next time it will not be them who have to board that bus.”
Claire Fu, Joy Dong and Zixu Wang contributed research.