Following almost two weeks of protests, China is now attempting to pivot away from its three years of zero-COVID policy. As officials implement policy changes, new questions have arisen about what role the protests played in this shift, how susceptible the government is to public pressure, and what to expect of future protests in China.
What did the protests against the zero-COVID policy accomplish?
At first glance, it might appear that the central government’s sudden policy shift is a direct result of the nationwide protests: people got what they asked for—a return to relative normalcy. However, though the government has ended its draconian approach to COVID-19, state media has shied away from discussing the protesters’ demands. Instead, it has portrayed the shift to be the result of other factors, including a weaker strain of the virus and the success of China’s three-year battle.
So did the protests result in the end of zero COVID? The short answer is that they were likely not the only determining factor, but they contributed to the government’s swift decision.
Economic factors seem to have also played a role in the decision. In mid-November, after the Twentieth Party Congress, the government attempted to loosen some COVID-19 restrictions, but it soon returned to strict control measures as cases spiked. In response, Foxconn workers organized a massive protest because the policies affected new hires’ payment packages and living conditions. Terry Gou, founder of Foxconn and one of China’s biggest foreign investors, sent a letter to the Chinese leadership warning that its policies were hurting China’s global supply chains. This came on top of pessimistic economic news, showing a slowing of economic growth.
But the protests likely spurred the government to move faster on easing the zero-COVID policy. Taisu Zhang, a law professor at Yale University, posits that the protests could have acted as a “political off-ramp” for the government by lessening blame on the government if the country suffers a wave of COVID-related deaths. Professor Yan Long from the University of California, Berkeley, also hypothesized that local governments, which have been under immense pressure to both control COVID-19 and keep up economic growth, could have used the protests as a bargaining chip against the central government in demanding a shift in policy.
A few days into the protests, Chinese leader Xi Jinping acknowledged the public’s frustration regarding zero COVID during a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel in Beijing. Although it is unclear whether Xi specifically said the word “protest” in Mandarin, acknowledging any imperfection in the policy is rare for Xi, especially when he has put so much personal stake behind zero-COVID.
What was special about protests this time, in comparison to previous COVID-related protests in China?
This wave of protests is special for its direct criticism of the central government’s zero-COVID policy. Although Chinese scholars, citizen journalists, and activists had previously called out the policy’s flaws, most popular criticisms in the past targeted local governments’ implementation of it. This time, however, the protesters demanded the end of zero-COVID itself and more directly criticized the central government.
The transnational mobilization of protests is also noteworthy. Chinese people in major cities around the world, such as New York, London, Berlin, and Paris, organized vigils and protests to raise awareness and show solidarity with protesters in China. This followed a similar episode in October, just before the Twentieth Party Congress, when a man on the Sitong bridge in Beijing unfurled a banner calling for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down, sparking vigils and protests internationally.
Interethnic solidarity is another new feature of Chinese protests. The main protests were sparked by a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, that killed an official toll of ten. Most notably, people in Shanghai went to Urumqi Road, prompting the government to remove the street signs. Some among the majority Han Chinese realize that the spread of systemic oppression of minorities is now falling upon themselves. Some expressed online that what is allowed to happen to a small population of Chinese people today would eventually affect everyone.
What strategies used in these protests were noteworthy?
The protesters’ familiarity with a type of encrypted connection known as Virtual Private Network (VPN) allowed them to bypass internet censors and access international social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram to organize and mobilize protests. For example, the Twitter account “李老师不是你老师” by a Chinese national residing in Italy became the internet gathering space of protesters, where the latest updates on mobilization, government crackdowns, and protest strategies were shared. While information within China’s Great Firewall is extremely volatile due to censorship, online spaces such as Twitter serve as a transfer station for information to be retained and re-disseminated back into Chinese social media platforms.
Another noteworthy strategy was the use of a symbol, in this case, a blank A4 paper as a satirical response to heavy censorship and surveillance in China. It was partly inspired by the Hong Kong activists in 2020, who held blank papers to dodge the national security law that criminalized pro-democracy slogans. Traditionally the standard paper size in China, the A4 paper now serves as a symbol of freedom of speech and press in Chinese protests. Some go as far as calling the protests the “A4 Revolution.”
What do these protests say about the future of protests in China?
The result of this wave of protests, although uncertain, is encouraging for many Chinese people. Many of them saw the severe civil society crackdown over the past decade leaving little space for public expression. The protests serve as evidence that despite harsh censorship and crackdowns, Chinese people can use creative tools to make their voices heard.
China’s youth are both the direct beneficiary of China’s economic development and the most affected by its slowing economy, competitive job market, and zero-COVID policy. Their growing disillusionment with the government’s promise of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” could shape the future of protests. In addition, their difficulty accessing information about past protests and crackdowns in China ironically allows them to be bolder and less fearful of potential consequences.
The Chinese diaspora’s involvement also suggests that future protests could receive transnational participation. As information access becomes more difficult inside of China due to hardened censorship, the Chinese diaspora could continue to function as a nexus for information flow and international solidarity for Chinese domestic movements.
Over the past twenty-five years, the Chinese government has successfully defused mass protests. The end of zero-COVID protests may be just another example of government appeasing the public by fulfilling selective demands that align with the government’s interests. But it is also possible that future protests in China will make broader demands for civil rights. Although in the recent protests, most people focused on specific COVID-related demands, many had larger goals in mind—a return to a relatively open society, where intellectual debates and civil activism coexisted with economic development. If people keep making these demands, the government’s usual strategy to distract and diffuse might eventually become insufficient to appease public unrest.
Attribution: Kathy Huang is a research associate for Asia Studies at CFR. Mengyu Han is an intern for Asia Studies at CFR.