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China’s Covid protests

China’s Covid protests

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In China, large scale dissent has burst onto the streets for the first time in decades and President Xi Jinping has been directly criticised. Why now?

[Clip: Protestors shouting in Urumqi]

It was a fire that lit the fuse… 

Last week, flames engulfed a residential building in the western city of Urumqi, killing 10 people.

Locals blamed the Chinese government’s strict anti-Covid lockdown for the deaths. They said residents weren’t able to leave when the fire started and that’s why they died. 

Things were made worse when local officials publicly denied that Covid measures had hampered the rescue, instead blaming the residents for not saving themselves. 

Video footage of the fire spread quickly online and so too did the public outcry. People felt moved to rebel – partly out of solidarity with the residents of Urumqi, and partly out of frustration at Covid restrictions in their own areas. 

[Clip: university students shouting.]

Students at some of China’s most prestigious universities were first to protest… 

They marched across their campuses, flashing torches and carrying signs with slogans like: “May the Chinese youth get over the apathy.”

Then, in Shanghai, hundreds chanted: “No PCR tests, we want freedom!” 

[Clip: Chanting in Shanghai.]

In Wuhan, the city where the Covid pandemic began in 2020, videos on social media showed hundreds of residents smashing through metal barricades, overturning testing tents and demanding an end to lockdowns.

[Clip: Wuhan protests.]

In the capital, Beijing, hundreds gathered holding blank sheets of paper – a protest against state censorship.

Protests of any form, let alone people taking to the streets, are incredibly rare in China, because it’s a huge risk to speak out against the ruling Chinese Comunist Party and its leader, Xi Jingping…

Free speech has effectively been wiped out, so the fact that so many thousands of people have taken part illustrates just how angry and desperate they are. 

But China has faced three years of tight Covid restrictions and resentment has been rumbling for a while, so why was that fire a tipping point?

***

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has been ruthlessly pursuing a zero-Covid policy, which means snap city-wide lockdowns, apps tracking your every movement and entire families being sent to squalid quarantine centres..

“Zero covid here means lockdowns, it means mass testing and it means anyone who tests positive going to a government-run quarantine centre.”

BBC News

The deaths in the tower block were not the first to be blamed on China’s strict Covid rules.

In September a father said his 3-year-old son died after he was prevented from getting the boy to hospital because his building was in lockdown. He wasn’t allowed out, even when he ran to the covid checkpoint with his son dying in his arms. 

Soon after, it was reported that a 14-year-old girl died after falling ill in a Covid quarantine centre. Then, residents in a locked-down city found themselves trapped inside their apartments during an earthquake; and a bus transporting residents to a quarantine facility crashed, killing 27 people on board – they’d been sent into quarantine after only a handful of cases were reported. 

As the list of incidents grew, so too did people’s outrage. 

They were willing to go along with the rules because they trusted their government’s zero-covid policy. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be working… 

“Let’s turn to China now it has reported its highest ever daily number of covert infections that’s despite stringent measures designed to eliminate the virus more than 31 000 new cases were recorded.”

BBC News

This, and pictures from the World Cup, have left many people questioning whether all their suffering has been worth it. 

Millions of Chinese sports fans are seeing – many for the first time – that the rest of the world has moved on. Thousands of people are packed into stadiums without masks whilst in parts of China people are still confined to their homes.  

So what could happen next?

***

These protests are dramatic and significant. Large scale dissent has burst onto the streets for the first time in decades and President Xi Jinping has been directly criticised…

“These are different because they’re making a direct call for political action political change most notably calling for Xi Jinping to stand down now I can’t remember over the last several years for any demonstrations to be calling for something like that.”

The Guardian

But in the short term the Chinese government is more likely to crackdown on protesters than change its policies.

President Xi has an iron-clad grip on the Party and the country; it’s even possible that he’ll remain in power for the rest of his life. 

He recently said his government would not change its commitment to the zero Covid strategy. In fact, he said there was no room at all for “wavering.” 

This gave local officials a clear signal: if you want to get ahead in the Party, implement zero-covid policies with zeal, whatever the consequences. 

So they may feel pressure to track down demonstrators, arrest and prosecute them. 

Longer term though, it may spur the Chinese government to improve the Covid vaccines they offer and encourage more people to get vaccinated.

We could yet see it quietly back away from its zero Covid strategy.


This episode was written by Rebecca Moore and mixed by Hannah Varrall.