Today’s Protests in China Have Been Years in the Making

After years of uniquely repressive COVID policies, protesters across China are demanding the lifting of restrictions and democratic rights. But this eruption is the latest manifestation of conflict that has been roiling China for the past three decades.

People in Shanghai hold up blank signs as a way of protesting China's zero-Covid policy on November 27, 2022. (Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images)

On November 24, at least ten people — and maybe many more — died in an apartment fire in Ürümqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region. Videos filmed by helpless neighbors suggested the victims could not escape the building and rescuers could not reach them because of harsh COVID restrictions. The restrictions had been in place in the city for over a hundred days, longer than anywhere else in China (although the lockdown in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, came close). And the controls were layered on top of Xinjiang’s already elaborate system of police checkpoints, surveillance cameras, neighborhood watches, and home visits by Communist Party cadres.

In other regards, though, conditions in Ürümqi echoed those in other parts of the People’s Republic during the pandemic: daily tests required to enter public spaces; disinfectant sprayed everywhere, sometimes even through the doors of people’s homes; sudden cordons imposed on neighborhoods; forced bus rides to bare quarantine facilities; and, crucially, blocked fire exits. After initial pride in the government’s zero-COVID strategy, which had up to then spared the country the high death tolls seen elsewhere in the world, many in China had become weary with authorities’ inhumane, imperious implementation of the policy.

When protests erupted across China in the days after the Ürümqi fire, they rightly captured the world’s attention. The anger on the streets was palpable. And the gutsiness of the demonstrators drew immediate comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

The attention and comparisons were not misplaced. Yet being the most significant demonstrations since Tiananmen does not make them Tiananmen-like. Nor should the protests’ significance blind us to ways that the current unrest builds on other events that have occurred between the two flare-ups. Clarifying what is and is not unique about the zero-COVID movement can help us offer more meaningful solidarity.

Decades of Protest

China has been an exceptionally quarrelsome country for the past three decades of state-led capitalist development. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, thousands of employees of rust-belt state-owned enterprises marched in opposition to layoffs spurred by the downsizing or partial privatization of their factories. Farmers have frequently clashed with local officials over arbitrary fees, land expropriations, runoff from chemical plants, and (until recently) China’s strict family planning policy, which was implemented more harshly outside cities. Rural-to-urban migrants have challenged sweatshop bosses in coastal boomtowns on a scale that has made European and North American strike rates look like a modest trickle. Homeowners have resisted forced demolitions. Women have rallied against domestic violence and sexual assault. And massive nationalist demonstrations have targeted Japan, the United States, and France for perceived slights to the country’s honor.

Although the overwhelming majority of these Chinese protests of the recent past have been geographically contained, some mobilizations have crossed work sites and cities. For instance, in 2019, Pepsi bottling plant workers in multiple locations held a coordinated leave-taking. In 2018, crane operators at several docks and truck drivers across China went on strike. The same year, a group of Marxist students from different universities rallied to support workers at an electronics factory in Shenzhen, resulting in crackdowns on campuses similar to those occurring today.

This contention was never entirely apolitical. People’s grievances stemmed from clear political choices made by reform-era authorities at different levels. These included decisions like that of the Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji administration to restructure the state sector, despite job losses numbering in the tens of millions. Or the choice by local governments and courts to turn a blind eye to hazardous pollution by well-connected companies. Or the determination by successive administrations to carry out a brutal, campaign-style intrusion into people’s most private sphere in the form of the One Child Policy. And looming behind all these was the post-Tiananmen decision by leaders to slow the political reforms of the late 1980s — separation of government and party functions, greater autonomy for mass organizations like the official trade union, experiments with village-level elections — to a reluctant inching forward at best.

Conflict on the periphery of the territory under Chinese rule was necessarily more directly political. In Tibet, parents resisted attacks on the use of the Tibetan language in schools, nomads contested their forced removal from grasslands and confinement to jobless settlements, and a broad range of people fought the government’s constant restrictions on Tibetan Buddhism. In 2020, protests spread across Inner Mongolia sparked by a dramatic cutback in the use of Mongolian in schools. From the 1990s onward, Uighurs and others in Xinjiang launched local initiatives to preserve their music and literature.

There were a few instances, such as the 2008 Tibetan uprising and subsequent string of self-immolations, the Charter 08 dissident manifesto, and an abortive attempt to launch an Arab Spring–inspired “Jasmine Revolution” in Beijing in 2011, when the territorial claims and political legitimacy of the system itself were questioned. Online, other forms of critique cropped up, such as memes that mocked various ideological campaigns or the censorship apparatus.

Yet on the whole, dissent in China scrupulously avoided direct criticisms of the Communist Party and its top leadership. Activists generally adopted what scholars Kevin O’Brien and Lianjiang Li have dubbed “rightful resistance” and Elizabeth Perry has called “rules consciousness”: using the state’s own policies and rhetoric to challenge abuses by grassroots officials. Whatever their personal thoughts, protesters publicly claimed that it was not that Beijing was wrong but rather that Beijing’s wise directives were not being fully heeded.

This has now changed. Echoing the slogans emblazoned on a protest banner unfurled by a lone protester on Sitong Bridge in Beijing at the outset of the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October, crowds have demanded not only an end to constant COVID testing and quarantines but also freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

Several Streams of Conflict

At present, there are several streams of loosely connected conflicts progressing at once. College students have gathered at institutions like Tsinghua University in Beijing and Communications University of China in Nanjing, holding up blank pieces of paper and singing “The Internationale.” In the city of Zhengzhou in central China, workers at the massive Foxconn facility manufacturing iPhones ahead of the holiday gift season have rioted over a “closed loop” system that has kept them confined to their dormitories and production lines, with no access to the world outside, only poor-quality food provided, trash piling up in hallways, and COVID-positive and negative employees crammed together with little regard to the possible spread of infection. The messy urban villages in Guangzhou have erupted in violent clashes between workers and the hated “big white” (da bai) security personnel in hazmat suits who roughly enforce restrictions.

A particularly moving element of these demonstrations has been the solidarity shown by Han demonstrators toward Uighurs. Demonstrators in Shanghai pointedly gathered first on the city’s Wulumuqi (Ürümqi) Road. Protesters there and elsewhere in China spoke of Han and Uighurs all being compatriots and “one family.” Some chanted “unlock Ürümqi” (a phrase that sounded similar to “liberate Ürümqi”).

Abroad, the language was more pointed and extended beyond Xinjiang’s COVID controls to encompass explicit regret for the massive internment camp system that has been established in the region to “reeducate” Uighurs and other Muslims. In one powerful video, an Uighur demonstrator asks a crowd gathered on the steps of a building whether they now believe that concentration camps exist in Xinjiang, and the crowd roars back in the affirmative. In another video, an overseas Chinese student bows in apology to Uighurs and invites his compatriots to do the same. As diaspora activists debate the demands for the movement, a frequent item on the evolving list is camp abolishment.

This is not to say that we are entering a revolutionary period. The protests are slowing. Security forces have already begun using the far-reaching surveillance technology at their disposal to track down and detain ringleaders. Even without repression, great upheavals bring empowerment but also disappointment. Participants are beginning to return to their everyday lives.

A Line Crossed

But a line has been crossed. And now that it has been crossed, it may be easier to cross it again. And again. Individuals with dissenting views now have clear evidence they are not alone. One can imagine that language used in universities and online will become looser, at least for a period. Tactics deployed in this round of dissent by middle-class young people may be adapted by workers and peasants for their own purposes — and vice versa. The country’s creeping Islamophobia may slow or reverse. Invocations by authorities of hostile foreign forces or people with “ulterior motives” fomenting dissent might be met with more vocal skepticism.

The Xi Jinping government has not been entirely unresponsive to unrest in the past. It moved to regulate the gig economy following protests by delivery drivers a couple years ago. Authorities seemed to slow down reforms to the steel and coal sectors following clashes with miners in the northeast in 2015. The state is now moving remarkably quickly to do away with the most onerous zero-COVID policies. At the time of this writing, mandatory COVID testing for many (but not all) public venues has been halted, and the discovery of a single case will no longer force a whole neighborhood to go into lockdown — just a floor or a building.

However, Xi has always avoided too obviously meddling with the system under popular pressure. Amid some of the protests described at the outset of this article, his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, abolished agricultural taxes, forced greater environmental consultations over hydropower projects, and passed three landmark pieces of labor legislation in one year: the Labor Contract Law, the Labor Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Law, and the Employment Promotion Law. In contrast, Xi has focused his energies on political discipline in the party and in society at large. His social initiatives like his signature anti-poverty campaign have taken the form of top-down directives and spending. Even his much-vaunted Common Prosperity agenda has so far mainly amounted to corporate philanthropy. Now, Xi may be pulled into a more public semi-negotiation with citizens, nakedly throwing out concessions to see what sticks. Unilaterally breaking off these negotiations may be difficult.

Where the situation goes from here is unclear, especially as the country confronts a potentially massive winter COVID wave. China’s pandemic controls of the past few years were unsustainable. The Ürümqi fire was not the first outrage. In September, twenty-seven people died when a bus from Guiyang to a quarantine facility overturned at night on a mountain road. Then, in early November, a father blamed COVID controls for blocking him from taking his three-year-old to the hospital when the child suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Equally seriously, the government apparently put so much faith in its controls that it underinvested in other forms of preparedness: vaccination and hospital capacity. Case counts were rising even before the protests forced a change in policy. Now, as local officials try to interpret conflicting signals from Beijing and restrictions are lifted in an uncoordinated manner, a more serious disaster looms.

Regardless of what path the movement ends up taking, people outside the country wishing to show solidarity have some basic responsibilities.

First, they should understand that China’s zero-COVID policy has been quite different from the approaches taken by other countries and avoid rhetorically forcing the Chinese situation to conform to the terms of their toxic domestic debates. Chinese demonstrators have not called for total disarmament in the face of a deadly disease but have instead been reacting to extreme abuses seen in few other places. And they may need help dealing with a COVID surge.

Second, and related, activists abroad should also avoid the impulse to link the current Chinese movement(s) to the ongoing geopolitical contest between the United States and China. This is not a time for assigning virtue points to nation-states but rather for people-to-people engagement.

Third, those with the right connections ought to provide safe spaces — institutional and physical — for Chinese living abroad to meet and deliberate. People should also offer support to diaspora activists like those who have been protesting outside Apple stores and in Cupertino demanding that the corporation treat its workers with respect and not help censor demonstrators.

Finally, we must all appreciate the agency that ordinary Chinese people have shown at this moment — and again and again over decades of struggle. Solidarity does not demand simplifying a situation down to familiar reference points. It calls for curiosity, empathy, and admiration.