See what led protesters to a breaking point with China’s ‘zero covid’ policy

As the world moved on from pandemic restrictions earlier this year, China doubled down on its strategy of trying to eliminate the coronavirus within its borders. In the name of “zero covid,” 1.4 billion Chinese citizens confronted a grim reality — a third year of strict lockdowns, relentless testing, lengthy quarantines and the constant tracking of their movements.

Now, many people are pushing back.

Mass protests have spread across China in the past month — from manufacturing hubs to universities, cities and minority regions in the far west, with more than a dozen locations verified by The Washington Post. In extraordinary scenes, citizens have gathered despite the significant risk of arrest. They have called for their country to be “freed,” not just from the government’s pandemic policies but also from its far-reaching control over their lives.

It is a wave of dissent and political mobilization not seen in China since the 1989 Tiananmen protests that swept the country before finally being crushed through a brutal crackdown. Like those protests, the current outpouring is a mix of frustration, anger and demands for change that has been building for months, if not years. Under an increasingly repressive system, “zero covid” has become an incendiary symbol.

Strict lockdowns

People behind a gate in a neighborhood placed under lockdown in Shanghai on Nov. 7. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News) Boxes of food from the local government are unloaded for distribution during the April coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images) Residential units in Shanghai during the April lockdown. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

In March, authorities imposed a lockdown on the city of Shanghai, placing its 25 million residents under de facto house arrest for two months. Residents struggled to get food or medical help and shouted from their windows for someone to help them. Some people died of conditions having nothing to do with covid-19, after they were unable to get medical care.

Wang Huiting was in the city at the time, working at an online food delivery company and caring for her seriously ill mother as she fought ovarian cancer. The 29-year-old said she tried for almost two weeks to get her mother to a hospital. But she was unable to secure an ambulance and, without one, both women were barred from leaving their residential compound.

Wang watched helplessly as her mother’s condition worsened and fluid in her abdomen built up. A doctor pointed her to an online video showing how that could be drained. She practiced several times on a bag of saline before attempting it for real, draining as much as she could from her mother’s body. Two days later, she finally secured the ambulance. Her mother, 54, died three days later at the hospital.

“I tried my best,” Wang said. “This was a man-made disaster. Whether you are sick or need medication, they just don’t care.”

Signs of discontent

The lockdown in Shanghai was one of many across the country that eroded confidence in the government’s pandemic policy, once a point of pride for China.

As it dragged on, residents there hung protest banners and banged pots on their balconies to signal their misery. They began to push back, at times clashing with local police trying to force them from their homes so that the buildings could be turned into quarantine centers. In April, a censored video of some of the most desperate lockdown moments became the focus of an online protest. Internet users raced to post new iterations of it on social media.

Elsewhere, students at universities in Tianjin, Shanghai and Beijing also started to resist measures that confined them to their dorms for weeks. In May, students at Peking University, China’s top school, rallied against administrators who had tried to erect a wall sealing off one of the dorms.

Growing public anger

Despite the government’s censorship, stories of deepening hardships and collateral deaths connected to coronavirus controls made their way out of even the most closed-off parts of the country. So, too, did word of nascent protests.

Hundreds of people in Lhasa, the capital of the heavily controlled Tibet Autonomous Region, took to the streets in October after almost two months of lockdown. Some had been confined to their homes or forced into isolation centers under conditions that rivaled the situation in Shanghai.

“Nobody knows what’s going on in Lhasa, and we don’t know what’s going on in other places,” said Dorje Gyaltshen, a 26-year-old Tibetan restaurant worker who was stuck in his small, rented room for more than 80 days. “Isn’t it natural for people to be fed up and demand change when they are locked up and treated like an animal?” he asked.

That month, just days before a key party congress would give Chinese leader Xi Jinping another term as head of the ruling party, a lone protester expressed what few others dared to say: Zero covid was the failure of Xi and the ruling Communist Party.

The protester, disguised as a construction worker, hung two large banners from the Sitong Bridge, an overpass in Beijing. They called Xi a “dictator and national traitor.” They declared, “We want freedom, not lockdowns.”

The congress ended with no sign that the country’s leaders would soon relax the government’s coronavirus measures. Instead, they pledged “unswerving” commitment to them. An already slowing economy fell further off pace, and companies were ordered to stamp out coronavirus infections by sealing off their factories. At Foxconn’s massive Zhengzhou plant, which makes half of the world’s Apple iPhones, thousands of workers fled and others protested conditions meant to limit the spread of the virus.

A deadly fire

A fire ignited the demonstrations seen in recent days. The blaze broke out Nov. 24 in Urumqi, the capital of northwestern Xinjiang, a region where pandemic controls have been among the most strict. Seven adults and three children died.

Residents accused firefighters of being slow to respond and blamed the coronavirus restrictions. Officials denied that, but many in the city were unconvinced. The first protest took place the next night as residents demanded an end to lockdown measures across the region.

The surge of protests

Protesters hold up pieces of blank white paper on Sunday in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images) Police officers block Wulumuqi Road, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, amid protests in Shanghai on Sunday. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images) Demonstrators in Shanghai on Saturday. (AP)

Within three days, demonstrations had spread thousands of miles away from Urumqi. As they gathered on campuses, in parks and on city streets, many held up blank pieces of paper — symbolic of the government’s sweeping censorship.

Kay Xiao, a 24-year-old programmer in Beijing, said he was about to go to bed late Sunday when he saw news of a protest near the Liangma Bridge. In half an hour, he was there. Students and young couples held up their blank white paper while cars driving by honked their horns. “Freedom belongs to the people!” some drivers yelled.

These citizens’ demands have broadened, with zero covid the proxy for a range of grievances. At the protest in Beijing, some called for freedom of the press. Others called for the rule of law and said the people should be the masters of their country. And most daringly, some targeted the ruling party in its seat of power. “We don’t want a dictatorship!” protesters cried out.

There are echoes in the protests. In Chengdu, demonstrators chanted the slogans written on the Sitong Bridge banners that the lone demonstrator hung in Beijing. In Dali, a town in Yunnan province in the southwest, dozens of young people walked along the central artery of the town with their blank pages of paper held high. They sang the left-wing anthem “The Internationale” as one person played a guitar.

“With the help of a fire in Xinjiang, people have been ignited all these nights,” Xiao said.

Few say they are optimistic that their sudden activism will change things. Xiao acknowledged the likelihood that he and his compatriots will be arrested, “because Xi Jinping does not allow anyone to challenge his authority.” Still, he said, it has been worth it to join these actions.

“If I heard there was another one, I would go again,” he said. “We can’t be silent. Freedom and rights are not given to you by others.”

About this story

Project editing by Susan Levine and Reem Akkad. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Design editing by Joe Moore. Video editing by Jason Aldag. Video verification by Meg Kelly and Atthar Mirza. Copy editing by JJ Evans. Photo credit for top two photos: Liu Jin and Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.