Protests against the Chinese government’s harsh controversial zero-COVID policy have intensified to unprecedented levels. Clashes have started to erupt between protestors and the security forces as the demonstrations continue on the sixth day. It is the largest protest ever seen in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013. The protestors are mostly young people frustrated by being confined to their homes.
The latest unrest began on Thursday, November 24, when 10 people got killed in a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, blaming the incident on prolonged lockdowns delaying firefighters from reaching the victims on time. Urumqi has had strict restrictions since August 2022 under the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) zero-COVID strategy.
Travel bans, mass testing and constant scanning of health codes with brute force have frustrated the citizens. Speaking to the media, they said they were dragged into lockdown even though nobody tested positive for COVID-19. They are now calling for the president to step down so they can live freely. Several universities and students have also joined the demonstrations.
Anti Covid Protests in China
Protestors across China broke down barriers, overturned testing centres, and massed outside government buildings chanting, “end lockdowns”. According to reports, they were heard shouting, “Xi Jinping, step down” and “CCP, step down”, in the greatest show of dissent in the history of China.
Protestors threw the barriers at the city workers dressed in white hazmat suits, who used to drag people on the streets owing to COVID restrictions. Many were also holding blank papers to decry censorship and the ongoing attacks on their freedom. Some were lighting candles and displaying flowers as a show of respect for those who died in Thursday’s fire. Chinese authorities denied that the zero-COVID policy hindered rescue efforts. Instead, they blamed parked vehicles for stopping the firefighters from accessing the building on fire. However, they apologized and pledged to phase out the restrictions without providing a time frame.
Meanwhile, the calls for the president’s removal continue, raising concerns because the government’s criticism in China rarely goes unpunished. According to reports, the police have arrested several anti-government demonstrators after punching and kicking them before shoving them into police cars.
The protests were the headline of International media but were censored in mainland China. Some videos of the circumstances ended up on social media, showing the clear resentment of Chinese people toward their leader.
Challenge for the President
There have been tens of thousands of protests in China in the last 3 decades over labour rights and the land mafia. However, nothing like this has ever happened that targets the authoritative regime. Sociologists attributed this development to the first real test of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian rule. His zero-COVID policy continues to trouble citizens, whereas most of the world has lifted all restrictions. Almost every other country has accepted the fact that humans will have to live with COVID for eternity, but China is trying to eradicate it completely.
Xi argues that the policy saves lives and lessens the burden on healthcare. It signals that Xi strongly underestimates the growing dissent across the country over his half-baked policy, which has no end in sight. Public anger is also fueled by censorship which stops them from watching something other than state propaganda. The central broadcasting company is even censoring FIFA World Cup 2022 with a 30-second delay whenever the camera cuts towards maskless spectators. Moreover, the police also arrested an English journalist for covering the mass protests in seven different Chinese cities.
Having recently won a third term as president, Xi has been China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. However, his leadership has never faced public humiliation over repression and crackdown tactics until now. It greatly challenges the authority of a political organization with no other concern than staying in power. Critics have opined that the ongoing protests will encourage many others to express dissent more openly from now on. People in other countries have also been protesting in front of Chinese embassies to show solidarity with those suffering under CCP rule.
What Has Zero-COVID Policy Achieved?
Despite the overwhelming restrictions, China has failed to curb the coronavirus. As of Monday, November 28, China has recorded more than 38,000 new cases. On top of that, the strategy has put immense pressure on social and economic costs. However, CCP only brags about the policy achieving the world’s lowest per capita death rate. The country has a population of 1.4 billion, but there are only about 5,200 COVID-related deaths. Yet, the protestors want Xi to be replaced as the policy is also going against their liberty.
It is a dilemma for the government as it can either listen to the public or risk maximizing infections and death. As happened in various cities like Beijing and Guangzhou, the numbers will jump as soon as authorities provide any relaxation. The reasons for this are low vaccination drive among the elderly, low-quality local vaccines and CCP’s defiance to allow foreign vaccines in the country.
The public is calling for new leadership which will defeat the coronavirus without jeopardizing the life and freedom of citizens. However, experts believe it is impossible to remove Xi from power as long as the country’s military and elite society support him.