Protests against China's strict covid lockdowns spread across the country after a deadly fire in Urumqi on Nov. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

Opinion Why China’s covid protests are different

5 min

For the first time in 33 years, tens of thousands of people in China have been rising up for a common cause, demanding an end to strict covid-19 lockdowns that have effectively turned people into prisoners.

When the pandemic began, many Chinese were prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good, but trust in the government declined as months of strict quarantine dragged on and people ran out of food, medicine and other essentials. Individuals are assigned digital health codes based on mandatory coronavirus tests. Green grants freedom of movement, but yellow or red lock people out of many public spaces such as offices, grocery stores and taxis. In some cities, authorities have padlocked doors and encircled apartment complexes with barbed wire to stop residents from leaving.

Even before the pandemic, state surveillance and social control measures posed major barriers to public demonstrations, so protests generally have been isolated and local in China. Angry parents or striking workers, like at a Foxconn iPhone factory last week, might fill a street for a day, but such unrest is typically resolved quickly — or crushed by police.

The protests that began over the weekend are different. They reflect prolonged, widespread suffering — citizens empathizing and identifying with others thousands of miles away.

The outpouring was touched off by a fire. Last Thursday, in Urumqi, Xinjiang, 10 people died in a blaze that engulfed an apartment building. Video of firetrucks spraying water that didn’t reach the flames spread on Chinese social media, as did accusations that covid lockdowns inhibited the response. The head of Urumqi’s fire rescue brigade blamed the victims, saying: “Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak.”

The day after, people in Urumqi marched to a local government office demanding that restrictions be lifted. Videos of a protest in Urumqi pinged across Chinese messaging apps before censors could pull them down. People thousands of miles across China defied authorities to hold memorials for the victims. This show of solidarity had its roots in common experience: Food shortages and suicides and other deaths related to prolonged lockdowns and travel restrictions have grown familiar. Along the way, draconian control measures initially imposed to eliminate the coronavirus from China have become an assertion of President Xi Jinping’s authority — and local officials’ loyalty to it.

Memorials for the Urumqi victims turned to calls for freedom and, in some cases, an end to Xi’s decade-long rule. When news broke Wednesday of former President Jiang Zemin’s death from leukemia and organ failure, state media praised Jiang’s role in the Tiananmen Square crackdown, while some netizens used the opportunity to criticize the current president. Twitter users shared screenshots of their Netease music app accounts being suspended after they commented on the popular romantic song “Too Bad it’s Not You,” hinting they wished Xi, not Jiang, had died.

As with the protests for regime change in Iran, pictures and videos of this unprecedented challenge to authoritarian leadership have gone viral globally.

Fang Shimin, a U.S.-based science writer known for his campaign against pseudoscience and fraud in China, has aggregated some of this content. On Nov. 27, he posted a video taken in Southwest China showing crowds on Chengdu’s Wangping Street shouting “opposition to dictatorship,” “freedom of speech,” “freedom of the press” and “give me freedom or give me death!”

Zhi’an Wang, a former commentator for China’s state-controlled CCTV news who is now based in Japan, is sharing protest footage, too. In the Nov. 27 videos below, Chengdu residents chant, “No PCR tests; we want freedom!"

On the same day, 1,200 miles away, a man holding flowers on Urumqi Middle Road in Shanghai was filmed saying, “We should be brave. Am I breaking the law for holding the flowers?” As police arrest the man, crowds chant: “Release him!”

Photos that appear to have been taken at night show workers removing a street sign from the area. In a tweet, Fang writes: “The Shanghai government removed the street sign on Urumqi Middle Road thinking it would stop people from going there to protest? In the future, like Tiananmen Square, it will become another sacred place for the Chinese democracy movement.”

In Beijing, where in 1989 the Chinese army killed thousands of pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square, groups of protesters held up white pieces of paper — a symbol of both censorship and the power of solidarity.

The government should have seen this coming. In March, when Shanghai officials imposed an indefinite lockdown with no strategy to deliver basic necessities to the city’s 25 million people, volunteers picked up where the government left off. People ambushed by public health measures discovered officials had no plan to ensure their safety or dignity. The Urumqi fire reignited their disappointment and rage.

Predictably, state-run media are ignoring the protests. It’s like they haven’t been happening. Yet China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission held an all-hands meeting on Monday and said it will “resolutely safeguard national safety and social stability” and “crack down on the infiltration of foreign forces.” The political jargon signals harsher crackdowns and punishment of protesters — and complete disregard for the people’s demands.

Xi’s aim to contain one crisis has created another for his government. For the first time in three decades, tens of thousands of strangers have arisen in solidarity.