On November 24, a fire in a high-rise apartment building in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region, killed 10 people. The tragedy might not have made it past local headlines, except for the fact that Urumqi, like many cities across China, has been under lockdown for weeks. Immediately, internet users began to speculate that firefighters had been prevented from reaching the burning building – or residents had been prevented from escaping – by COVID-19 lockdown procedures.
China has seen other tragedies caused by the “dynamic zero” COVID-19 policy: A bus that crashed along a mountainous highway at 2 a.m., while carrying passengers to their forced quarantine. A 3-year-old who died when his father was prevented from seeking medical attention. A 5-month-old who shared the same tragic fate. Pregnant women and elderly men who died because hospitals refused to admit them without a recent negative test. And perhaps the first moment of national grief during COVID-19: The February 2020 death of Wuhan-based doctor Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for warning his friends about the new coronavirus in late 2019.
Each of these tragic events sparked an outpouring of grief and anger online – where it was quickly censored.
However, the Urumqi fire catalyzed a different response. In cities across the country – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, and more – hundreds of people took to the streets, demanding an end to the zero COVID policies. Their grievances started out specific: demands to “let us out” of locked apartments, complaints over price gouging during lockdown, pleas to let China join the rest of the maskless, freely moving world.
But the protests quickly snowballed into general demands for freedom, human rights, and democracy. “We don’t want dictatorship, we don’t want a personality cult!” protesters in Beijing chanted en route to Tiananmen Square.
Perhaps most concerning to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities, the protests – while spontaneous and only loosely organized – shared common symbolism, indicating they were aware of and building on each other. Some demonstrators chanted slogans first raised by a rare in-person protest on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge just before the 20th Party Congress: “We want to eat, not take PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns.” Many protesters also held up blank sheets of paper in their marches, a protest tactic also seen in Hong Kong that serves as an indictment of censorship.
One slogan used by protesters in Beijing specifically referenced the Urumqi fire: “Today, we are all Xinjiang people.” Left unspoken was the possibility that the chant could have also been a reference to the draconian surveillance and detention policies that have targeted Xinjiang’s native Uyghurs for over five years. It’s telling – and troubling – that the detention of potentially a million Uyghurs did not spark the same response as the death of 10 people (at least five of whom were Uyghur).
As I’ve written, many Han Chinese are deeply skeptical that there are crimes against humanity underway in Xinjiang, despite a mountain of evidence (including documents from government offices and police bureaus about their own policies). Many Han Chinese I’ve spoken to admit the widespread arrests and detentions but firmly believe that the Uyghurs impacted were guilty of something (what, exactly, is generally left vague).
There are complex ethnic dimensions to this particular issue, but more broadly many Han Chinese seem to have little sympathy for the plight of political activists and human rights lawyers arrested by the state. As Foreign Policy’s James Palmer put it in a 2017 piece exploring public opinion in China toward one of the country’s most famous dissidents: “The Chinese think Liu Xiaobo was asking for it.”
As Palmer wrote:
Many Chinese, like other residents of authoritarian states, don’t want to confront what officialdom could do to them at any moment. When the government crushes people, then, it must be the victim’s fault. They should have known what would happen. They shouldn’t have been so arrogant. They should have realized who they were up against.
And that is precisely why the current protests are so powerful: Few think the victims of zero COVID policies were to blame for their own deaths (and pro-regime supporters who suggest otherwise are roundly mocked). Instead, nearly everyone in China can imagine the same ugly fate befalling themselves or their loved ones, through no fault of their own. To paraphrase Palmer, zero COVID has forced the average person to confront what officialdom could do to them at any moment.
One post that went viral on Chinese social media made this explicit, referencing some of the most high-profile tragedies caused by zero COVID:
The one who jumped off a building was me,
The one in the overturned bus was me,
The one who left Foxconn on foot was me,
The one who froze to death on the road was me,
The one who had no income for several months and couldn’t afford vegetables was me,
The one who died in the fire was me,
And if none of these was me, then next time it will be me.
Most Han Chinese felt able to safely ignore the Uyghurs’ plight because they couldn’t imagine it happening to them. But they are deeply afraid of the ways zero COVID has killed people just like them.
In addition, the protests have also weakened one of the CCP’s favorite excuses: that all dissent is fostered by “hostile foreign forces.” That has been the line used by the CCP to dismiss the 1989 pro-democracy movement, recurring ethnic protests in Tibet and Xinjiang, and most recently the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.
When the accusation is used against the Other, it’s easier to accept. When it’s used against you, you see it for the lie it is.
When someone suggested to a protest group in Beijing that there were “hostile foreign forces among us” in the march, protesters were outraged. “Was the fire in Xinjiang set by hostile foreign forces?” one retorted. “Was the bus in Guizhou overturned by hostile foreign forces?”
“Did hostile foreign forces force you to be here?” another asked. The crowd roared back, “NO!”
Yang Hengjun, a Chinese Australian blogger currently in detention in China, once told me that “in China, everyone is one step from becoming a dissident.” He explained that all it takes is a brush with the dark side of the system – an uncle imprisoned for demanding his rightful wages, a family home marked for demolition, a mother beaten by the police for selling vegetables on the street – to demonstrate to people that there are ripe opportunities for abuse but no chance for redress in the current system.
Zero COVID has brought this reality home to a massive number of Chinese people. People have felt the heavy hand of the state press down on their lives – and realized they have no power and no recourse in the face of mistreatment. And now those protesting against zero COVID are facing further abuses: dozens of arrests have been reported, although as of this writing there are no official figures. (Chinese media have remained silent on the protests, preferring to pretend they aren’t happening rather than give them a signal boost by denouncing the demonstrations.)
It’s too early to tell how long the current protests will last, and whether they will bring about any lasting change (my guess, for the little it’s worth: they won’t, both because Xi Jinping truly believes in zero COVID and because he can’t be seen to be swayed by popular discontent). But zero COVID has already had a huge impact on Chinese society by causing a massive uptick in awareness of the injustices wrought by the Chinese government – and the potential for those injustices to fall on any person at any time.