upper waypoint

China's Mass Protest Movement: Why It Began and Where It Might Lead

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A protester sitting on someone's shoulders, yells into a bullhorn.
Demonstrators in Beijing protest against China's strict zero-COVID measures, on Nov. 28, 2022. Protesters took to the streets in multiple Chinese cities after a deadly apartment fire in Xinjiang province sparked a national outcry. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In a remarkable display of public discontent not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, protesters across China have taken to the streets, demanding an end to the country’s stringent zero-COVID policy.

At the outset of the pandemic, China adopted a strategy of quarantining and locking down large numbers of citizens to prevent the spread of the virus — an approach that undoubtedly saved a huge number of lives. But while most of the world has moved on to treating COVID as an endemic disease, much like the seasonal flu, and has generally allowed pre-pandemic life to resume, China has continued strict enforcement of its policy.

Long-simmering resentment over the policy reached a boiling point last week, when a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, killed 10 people, amid stringent lockdowns that have confined many residents in the area to their homes for more than three months.

Related Stories

Spurred by news of the fire, demonstrators across the country — and in Chinese communities around the world — took to the streets, calling for an end to the restrictions, which they argue have placed an extraordinary burden on citizens. Many protesters are also demanding the resignation of China’s President Xi Jinping, who was confirmed in October for an unprecedented third term.

KQED Forum host Alexis Madrigal on Thursday spoke to three China observers about the protests, the government's response and what impact the unrest might have in amending China’s COVID policy and its future. Guests included:

Kerry Allen, a BBC Chinese media analyst

Victor Shih
, chair of China and pacific relations at UC San Diego

Nancy Qian, economics professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and founder of the school's China Econ Lab

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: How has the zero-COVID policy been implemented exactly and how has it affected life in China?

KERRY ALLEN: You get tested roughly every two to three days, and this test is entered into your phone and you get a QR code. It's either green, yellow or red, and you need to show a green code in order to be able to access most public buildings, most public transport. If you get a yellow or a red, it can literally stop you from entering buildings, stop you from getting on public transport. If you test positive for COVID-19, everybody on your entire street or in your apartment complex will be locked down. That hasn't changed for the last three years, and this is what's really fueled people's anger, the idea that they can't get back to life as normal, that if they just go to the supermarket and somebody in the same supermarket tests positive, they might not go home. They might be taken to a quarantine center.

VICTOR SHIH: And it has been mandatory. China has had the state capacity to do so because of residential committees — quasi-government workers who enforce lockdowns in every single neighborhood and prevent outsiders, even delivery people. People have been unable to get food and medicine, which has been the source of a lot of tragedies.

What are the quarantine centers like?

VICTOR SHIH: For foreigners, the so-called centralized quarantine facilities are basically like a three-star hotel. But for people in China who receive a red code, they go to a giant kind of warehouse that is not meant for people to live in and where sometimes hundreds of cots are just put on the ground and they're sleeping next to each other. Oftentimes they would only have one or two bathrooms shared by hundreds of people. The plumbing overflows, etcetera.

How has this affected the basic functioning of the economy? What's it like to own a business in this kind of environment?

NANCY QIAN: It's been incredibly difficult for economic functions to continue as normal during lockdowns. Factories can't get their product to stores, stores can't get their products to customers. It's just a complete breakdown of the supply chain. Based on data from much milder lockdowns, economists estimate that a month-long lockdown of a city like Beijing or Shanghai would reduce total Chinese GDP by 4%. And Shanghai was in lockdown for two months. As far as we know, 45 cities were in lockdown in April. In September, there were 70 cities that were on some type of a lockdown. And these are just the official ones.

What's the explanation for why China's GDP continued to increase throughout 2020 and 2021, while the U.S. GDP declined? That difference would seem strange since China had this lockdown policy.

NANCY QIAN: Part of that is because during the earlier days of COVID, infection rates were very low in China. There was a complete lockdown, not just in China, but also most other parts of the world. So there just wasn't much disease in China. Because of that, and because of their ability to do rapid lockdowns when there were low infection breakouts, they were able to keep producing, keep manufacturing, and Chinese exports actually increased during this time. During COVID, there was a lot of consumer demand from overseas for manufactured goods and that explains a lot of the Chinese growth during those years.

What do we know about the protests? What's exceptional about them?

VICTOR SHIH: The scale in terms of the number of people participating is not especially large, but in terms of the geographical spread and also the demands that were voiced by the protesters, really it is something that we have not seen since 1989. These are protests taking place over a dozen cities, and while they mostly call for less COVID restrictions, there are quite a few instances of protesters asking for fundamental political reform. Even at an elite institution like Shanghai University, which has produced half the top leaders of China — including Xi Jinping himself — there were calls for rule of law and freedom. That's really striking and is something that we have not seen for several decades.

KERRY ALLEN: You've also got workers protesting in places like Urumqi and you've got Han Chinese protesting in other parts of the country. It shows that it's not just about COVID anymore. It's about the inability to speak out about what's happening in your area. So, yes, I expect that we could see more protests and there's definitely tension and there's definitely anger about not just COVID-19, but also not being able to speak openly over the last three years.

So, yeah, it will be a case of what happens next, especially with the winter months coming. It's going to get a lot colder. There have been warnings that there will be more COVID-19 cases. So there are expected to be a lot of lockdowns. And there's a lot of emphasis on local governments to try and manage the economy as well as the virus spreading. But people online are still very much talking about their anger and their frustrations. The censors might try to silence this, but the anger is still there.

And what has the government response been?

KERRY ALLEN: They haven't acknowledged the protesters whatsoever in state media. There's just no mention of them. What there's been in newspapers and broadcasters is this emphasis that China is constantly changing its guidelines in line with scientific and technical guidelines for what works best with COVID-19. So they're really doubling down and saying, "Our policies are the correct ones." And yeah, censors will remove mention of protest pictures, of protest videos, of protests online. So there's the idea that dissent just doesn't exist in the country. So it's a major operation involving thousands of people to literally scrub social media posts and make sure that people don't see these.

It seems like this zero-COVID approach is causing the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping a lot of trouble. So why not do something else?

VICTOR SHIH: You have to remember that China spent pretty much the past three years trumpeting the successful approach in controlling COVID up until recent months. After the initial wave of very tragic infections and deaths in Wuhan, the Chinese government was able to control the spread of COVID at a time when, in most countries in the world, COVID spread pretty much uncontrollably, leading to millions of deaths.

Up until the end of 2021, there has been a very low spread of COVID and a very low number of deaths in China. And so the Chinese government made a lot of that fact. For them to suddenly change course and to open up and to allow the sort of rampant spread of COVID, I think that will create another wave of crisis, maybe among a different population, among older people, among people who work for the Chinese government and who were at the forefront of trying to enforce the COVID lockdown policies. So I think either way that they go, they will create some kind of problem with some segment of the population.

Xi Jinping's grip on power in the party is pretty absolute at this point, because he has inserted very trusted followers in the People's Liberation Army and also in the internal security services. Once you control those two parts of the Chinese government, you pretty much have all the levers of power. So I don't think that will change. But we have seen some softening of COVID policies because of the protests. And of course, that could be tactical. But the economic costs of COVID lockdown is quite substantial. I think a lot of people around Xi probably are beginning to suggest to him that COVID policies need to change or the Chinese economy is really not going to be in a good place.

Aside from zero-COVID, what other public health policies have been at play in China? Could the government have, for example, run a more intense vaccination campaign?

NANCY QIAN: Before we had vaccines, all we really had were lockdowns to keep people safe. But then as vaccines were innovated, that gave policymakers a second tool. China differed from the rest of the world, or I should say the West and other high-income countries, in a couple of ways. One is that they decided to use only the domestically produced vaccine, which is effective, although it's not as effective as the one that Pfizer has produced. And the second thing that's differed is that the vaccination rates have been very low for the elderly, and that's a big difference with, say, the U.S. or European countries.

The young have almost perfect compliance, but the elderly population, those over 65, even those over 80, have very low vaccination rates. And part of that is that they're just really afraid of side effects and suffering problems from that. And the way they see it is that if they don't get vaccinated, the probability of getting ill is very low, a belief driven in part by the country's initially very low COVID rates. And I think that's just a result of poor messaging from public health officials in China.

How has China's zero-COVID policy affected school-aged kids in the country?

KERRY ALLEN: Well, one thing that's been really interesting to me is there was a period of time in China when you would see daily reports on U.S. kids and how it affected them. China very much wanted to stress that this was a big problem in the U.S., that the children were facing physical and mental health problems as a result of COVID-19 and, as state media saw it, the lax government rules that were applied in the U.S.

But in China, I've seen similar struggles. There's been this whole campaign of "tang ping" culture, this "lying flat," that particularly young people now are so burnt out, so frustrated, being told that they constantly need to be embracing the government's message, doing more, helping out with the economy. They feel stressed out.

I remember when lockdowns were first lifted in some communities. Children were still going back to school wearing masks, and they were crying because they couldn't recognize their teachers and their friends anymore. So you could see that this had a big impact on children, the lockdowns in particular, because for a long period of time, they had been studying from home and felt isolated.

How important is it to have protests of solidarity outside of China, like the recent vigil that was held in Chinatown in San Francisco? Does it have any impact on what's happening in China?

VICTOR SHIH: I think the protests both in China and also overseas are having a very enormous medium-term impact. In the literature on protests, one of the deepest insights, I think, is from Professor Timur Kuran, who's at Duke University. His insight is that with protests, especially in authoritarian regimes, people who previously have been very isolated from each other, who didn't know that other people felt the same way, when they showed up on the streets, they all realized that actually there are quite a number of people who feel the same as them.

This is especially true in China, but also true outside of China, where, of course, a lot of people who have been unhappy with the Chinese government have left China and have come especially to the United States. But they didn't know that there were so many others like them.

So with these protests, they suddenly realized that there's actually quite a large community of people who are just like them. This "information revelation," which is what we call it in the literature, will encourage them to participate in further protests.

And, of course, this mechanism will be especially strong overseas where there is not the threat of arrest when you participate in anti-Chinese government protests. So I think this will have a long-lasting impact.



lower waypoint
next waypoint