China may be seeing protests across the country, including parts of Xinjiang. But there is a sense of heterogeneity in all of it which is ultimately converging into a common point.
Chinas is witnessing a series of protests by students and citizens over its Covid restrictions. (Photo: AFP)
By Saikiran Kannan: The series of protests and demonstrations carried out by students and citizens across China may look on the outside as one that is choreographed and synchronized as an attempt by its citizens to break the shackles of the Zero Covid policy chains. In that sense, it may typically look like wide-scale protests in any other country. But that is not the case.
China may be seeing protests across the country, including parts of Xinjiang. But there is a sense of heterogeneity in all of it which is ultimately converging into a common point – the frustrations against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping’s leadership and policy-making.
From anti-lockdown protests to college power shutdowns to open calls for fair elections and human rights, to protesting the loss of lives in quarantine to getting shocked at how the rest of the world is out in the open and celebrating sports events, each protest has a unique reason.
Major trigger points of the China uprising:
1. Detention of anti-lockdown activist: The Shanghai police detained a prominent rights activist who called on a local official to resign over the citywide COVID-19 lockdown in April. Ji Xiaolong was detained on September 2. His detention came after he began writing petitions to Shanghai’s ruling CCP secretary, Li Qiang, calling on him to resign for “blindly following orders from the central government [in Beijing]” when implementing weeks of gruelling lockdown in the city earlier this year. This led to local protests and demonstrations of small size in Shanghai and the same was trending on Weibo.
2. Protesting over lack of food: Residents in Guiyang demonstrated on September 11 and went viral on social media after complaining about the lack of food during the extended lockdowns. The locals ran out of flour, rice, eggs, and milk for children. Back then, China was seeing less than a thousand cases a day. The anger was seething as many children were left without enough food. It is important to note that just earlier in that month, a UN report accused China of committing serious human rights violations under the name of Covid protocols, especially on its minorities.
3. Power cuts and lack of facilities for students: On September 19, students at Wuhan University staged protests citing constant power cuts in their dormitories while the area was under continued lockdown. The RFA (Radio Free Asia) reported that the protest was triggered by a report that one of the university’s senior managers had been fined over two million Yuan for “embezzlement” and “stealing electricity”. The local power supply office, in a statement, said that the university authorities had used the transformers originally allocated to the dormitories and canteen to divert power without authorization, prompting widespread anger among students. Wuhan’s residents were very critical of the price of electricity in the country and cited that as a major reason for the corruption in power departments and the need for authorities to indulge in electricity theft.
4. Ill-treatment of quarantined people: On September 19, at least 27 people were killed in a bus crash in Guizhou after the bus transporting them to a mandatory isolation camp overturned. Guizhou saw strict lockdowns in September and witnessed close to 600 cases a day. This led to protests in the region, with social media users being heavily critical of the government policies in handling people in isolation camps. Weibo saw a lot of traction over this accident with posts reading: “This feeling can’t simply be represented by lighting a candle and saying RIP”, “What proof do you have that you won’t be on that bus at night someday”, “Who said we’re not on that bus late at night, we’re clearly all there”, “We’re all on this terrifying, dark bus”.
Soon after, those posts were censored, and comment sections closed.
5. Starvation and lack of medical care: Such cases will most exclusively occur in minority regions like Xinjiang. RFA reported that at least 22 people died of starvation or lack of medical attention on September 21 under China’s Covid lockdown policies in the northern Xinjiang city of Ghulja, confirmed by the police and bereaved family members. Prior to this revelation, many Uyghurs had appealed for help on social media, mostly on TikTok, to raise awareness of their plight. This was a major trigger in this part of China to start mini-demonstrations. Unlike the Han population, the minority Uyghurs cannot openly protest against the government or the police.
6. The famous “Bridge man” protests: This made headlines around the world and was not totally connected to the Zero Covid policy or the Covid lockdowns. This was more to do with a lack of change in the CCP and China’s governance structure and hierarchy. It was days before Xi Jinping got re-elected for the third time as the General Secretary of the party.
On October 13, a man climbed up a busy highway overpass in Beijing’s Haidian district posing as a construction worker and unfurled two massive white banners covered in slogans written in red. He then called for attention using a loudspeaker and shouted: “Go on strike at school and work, remove the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping! We want to eat, we want freedom, we want to vote!” This was a true act of bravery and was also seen as a poignant trigger for every other large-scale protest that has ever erupted across China since this incident. The other significance was that it was done on the eve of an important Communist Party congress.
7. The Foxconn protests: On October 31, dozens of factory workers fled the Zhengzhou Foxconn plant following a Covid outbreak and lack of sanitation in the dormitories. This later escalated into widespread protests on November 23 when new workers were recruited to replace those who fled and those under quarantine under the promise of higher pay and bonuses. The protests became a focal point when new workers were asked to stay with other workers under Covid quarantine and the bonuses promised to the new workers were not provided. The rest, as they say, is history as we have seen images and videos shared by the workers.
8. An unlikely trigger – the FIFA World Cup: The China Central Television, or CCTV, is the official broadcaster of the World Cup matches in the country. Soon after the opening ceremony on November 20, Chinese citizens were shocked to see that they were living under a cave and that the rest of the world was out and about. They were not asked to wear masks or remain behind closed doors. This was a revelation of sorts, and the CCTV was quick to go into damage-control mode the next day as it avoided broadcasting images of crowds and fans without masks. As other broadcasters continued showing the crowd, CCTV blurred them or changed the angle, showing only the players or the coaching staff.
This was identified by several journalists who are residents of China and the same was shared across social media. This further irked the Chinese citizens, given they are still under severe lockdowns and closures. The recent news of Taiwan opening fully to tourists and removing the mandatory mask rule also further portrayed the Chinese government in a poor light when it came to policymaking and efficiency.
9. The Urumqi fire incident: As a result of the Zero Covid policy, the police and the Zero Covid task force in Xinjiang locked up apartment exit points with wires and other accessories. As a result of it, 10 people in an apartment in Urumqi could not escape a raging fire. On November 24, a fire in an apartment building around 7:50 pm in Urumqi, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, killed 10 people and injured nine. It is said that one of the draconian restrictions imposed under the Zero Covid policy is the sealing up of entry and exit points in buildings with iron wiring to prevent the movement of people. It is also said the fire trucks did not even enter the compound of the building due to the Covid lockdown rules and hence, most of the water that was sprayed could not douse the fire. In a rare case, the Uyghurs and the Han ethnic citizens protested together against such extended lockdowns and shouted at the authorities to “lift lockdowns”. The Mayor of the Urumqi municipality has reportedly apologized for the incident.
10. Mobilization of protests across different universities in China: The final knell was the mobilization and synchronization of protests by students across universities in China. Many students and protestors actively shared videos and images of their demonstrations using VPNs and circumventing censorship and firewall blockers in China.
This pushed the government to sit up and take notice as it reminded them of the Tiananmen Square protests.