FROM URUMQI in the northwest to Shanghai in the east, demonstrations and protests have rocked China in recent days. They have varied in size, tenor and composition, but all have been united by one theme: demands for an end to the harsh lockdowns and arbitrary controls of the country’s “zero-covid” campaign. Taken together, they represent a broad-based and diverse bellow of frustration of a sort very rarely heard in China. Though not all protests are explicitly political, they are an unmistakable rebuke for President Xi Jinping, hailed by state media as “commander in chief of the people’s war against covid”.
Many people are increasingly fed up with that war. The latest trigger came on November 24th, when a fire at an apartment block in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region, killed at least ten people and injured nine others. Local residents claimed that doorways and fire exits in the building were sealed to control covid. Officials in Urumqi denied this. “Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak…and they failed to escape,” explained the head of the fire brigade, causing yet more anger. Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur minority, has been under tight covid restrictions for months.
The plight of the Uyghurs often does not resonate in the rest of China. Over the past decade the government has detained hundreds of thousands of them for arbitrary reasons and kept Xinjiang under intense surveillance. The fire, though, prompted angry residents to stage protests at astonishing personal risk. And, in a rare display of inter-ethnic solidarity, those protests spread. Predominantly young people in Shanghai gathered over the weekend to hold vigils for the fire victims on Urumqi Road, a street better known for hipster cafes and clothes shops. Some even called for the overthrow of Mr Xi and the Communist Party. A protest in Beijing on November 27th lasted well into the night, with chants of solidarity for those arrested in Shanghai and for the dead in Xinjiang. Dozens of university campuses across the country have also seen demonstrations against the zero-covid policy.
These are merely the latest signs that Chinese citizens think the policy has lasted too long. In recent weeks there have been instances of indignant residents variously kicking down steel barriers meant to seal them in housing estates or—at the most genteel end of the protests—calling the police to question the legal authority of locally-enforced covid restrictions. Crowds of workers at the largest iPhone factory in the world, outside the city of Zhengzhou, clashed with riot police on November 23rd. They were reportedly angry about broken promises by Foxconn, which runs the factory, over bonuses and after newly hired workers were put in the same dormitories as the existing workforce, despite many suspected covid cases on the vast Foxconn campus. Earlier this month, some Foxconn workers climbed fences to flee an outbreak on the campus. (Foxconn says that all contractual promises have been met and that infected workers were not still living in factory dorms.)
Even as frustration with the zero-covid policy grows, no exit plan appears in the offing. China has squandered the whole of 2022, refusing to undertake the preparations that would be needed for a safe, planned opening up to the world. There are no signs of a new booster campaign to protect China’s under-vaccinated population, which includes the oldest Chinese. Foreign diplomats recently visited China’s most modern production site for making covid vaccines and found it all but idle, suggesting that no large orders have even been placed. Meanwhile, the most effective mRNA shots, produced in Western countries, have never been approved for use in China. A rapid opening at the start of winter would bring about the waves of deaths that the party has boasted of avoiding until now.
The authorities have, at least, started tweaking their controls to make them more precise—and more durable. But the 20-point plan released by the government two weeks ago, which aims to eliminate inefficient tactics, has arguably contributed to the current mood. Earlier this year party leaders expressly condemned dissent over the zero-covid policy. By suggesting that unreasonable controls can be lifted, though, the party has made debate about the whole policy legitimate. It has also triggered confusion, with controls being eased and then hastily re-imposed in such large cities as Shijiazhuang, near Beijing.
For Mr Xi, the immediate challenge is curbing the unrest. Over 73 years of iron-fisted rule, the party has learned to pick its battles and bring different weapons to each fight. Its tactics lean towards violent repression in regions such as Xinjiang, where there is fear of ethnic conflict. Student protest leaders risk long jail terms (university leaders were recently filmed warning students that their parents may be called if they do not return to their dorms). But in the face of worker protests, a mixture of pay-offs and coercion are typically used to restore calm (though ringleaders can expect to be taken away and punished). As for disgruntled middle-class urbanites, the party often stands ready to bargain with them, offering concessions as long as its overall authority is not questioned.
Some of these tactics were on display in Tiantongyuan, a housing estate of shabby tower blocks in Beijing that is home to hundreds of thousands of residents, many of them migrant workers from outside the capital. On November 26th smartphone images showed residents kicking down the blue steel fencing erected to seal off part of the estate. But on the following day your correspondent easily walked into the same compound after a scan of his Beijing health-code app. Explaining the unrest, a middle-aged man said that many of his neighbours are blue-collar workers who go unpaid if they are locked in. The authorities understood this, he suggested, adding that all residents had received a conciliatory delivery of free vegetables the previous evening.
The mood in Tiantongyuan was calm and residents’ opinions divided about China’s covid policies. “I hope they stick with zero-covid, or it will be chaos,” said an older woman. But the man ventured that China had lost its fear of the virus. “At first we thought it was like SARS, that if you get it you die,” he said. “But now people ask: how come they aren’t controlling it in the outside world? Maybe it’s not so bad.” He cited a friend in America who has had covid “three times, and it’s like getting a cold.” Chinese netizens have pointed to the football World Cup, where mask-less fans throng stadiums in Qatar. State censors have responded by sharply reducing the number of crowd shots shown during state television’s coverage of the tournament.
Extra hired muscle could be seen in Tiantongyuan, including two bruisers from Jilin province dressed in the overalls of pandemic workers, over which they wore green quilted overcoats. They had been brought in as support after the previous day’s troubles, said one of them, who asked to take a photograph of your correspondent’s press card and see proof of a recent covid test. Another guard, employed full-time by the housing estate and found guarding a sealed-off staircase, was both friendly and philosophical about a possible end to the zero-covid policy. Lots of people are tired and ready for a change, he said. “But if we opened up, many people would not dare go out, like in Shijiazhuang.” Asked for his personal opinion of the policy, he looked astonished. “We used to lock down a whole district for a few cases, now we only lock down single buildings,” he said. “So the disease isn’t as dangerous as it used to be. But opening, that is for the government to decide.” ■