China’s currently being rocked by the largest protests since the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
As the world’s eyes follow the dramatic uprisings from Beijing to Shanghai, the question everyone’s asking is why?
What has led thousands of Chinese citizens to finally rise up and say “enough” to their authoritarian government?
COVID overreach was the final straw
The specific cause of this wave of protests occurred after a fire in China’s Xinjiang region in the city of Urumqi, which killed dozens of people who had been trapped inside their apartments.
The victims were reportedly welded and barred inside their homes and unable to leave due to the strict rules put in place to stop COVID.
Last Friday as protests broke out, hundreds of residents gathered to sing China’s national anthem The March of the Volunteers (Yìyǒngjūn Jìnxíngqǔ), repeating the line “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!”
Protests soon spread in Urumqi and spread like wildfire across China including to places as diverse as Chengdu, Wuhan, Lanzhou and Nanjing. The protests included walkouts from universities and large public manifestations. At least 16 cities across China have had significant protests since the Urumqi fire.
This is far from the only incident, either, and is part of a list of tragedies which have slowly roiled the population into a state of rage. Three months ago a bus crash of people being taken to a quarantine camp in Guizhou had an accident in which 27 died, sparking outrage.
Headlines also arose during fights at a Foxconn iPhone factory in Zhengzhou when thousands of the employees began rioting with police and crashed through barricades, furious over zero-COVID rules and poor conditions and pay.
Zhengzhou recently ended most local aspects of its strict COVID rules, relaxing them as much as possible following the iPhone riots.
China’s leader Xi Jinping has led a zero-COVID policy which has included strict lockdowns, welding people into their homes, mandatory tests and extensive tracking of people in their daily lives.
These protests have gone from anger at the zero-COVID rules to generalized demands for more personal freedom and rights.
Blank sheets of paper for the Politburo
Many protests have included people holding up blank sheets of paper as well as candlelit marches.
The blank pages symbolize the government censorship which has systematically worked to shut out news of the protests from the public.
Protests have become especially intense in Shanghai, where two years of zero-COVID rules have hit hard, cutting residents off from the groceries, healthcare and daily necessities they need.
Some protesters in Shanghai even shouted “Down with Xi Jinping! Down with the Communist Party!” which are two very dangerous things to say.
Speaking out against the Politburo government of Communist China is not safe. It can get you serious jail time and incur various other penalties, including punitive lowering of your social credit score and access to banking, real estate, transport and government services.
It’s also significant that these protests originated in Xinjiang, which is home to China’s persecuted Uighur minority. This includes extensive surveillance and government-run programs to dominate and culturally conquer the region under the guise of “anti-terrorism” activities.
An estimated two million ethnic Uighurs have been systematically sterilized, jailed, enslaved, infected with AIDS and killed as part of a Chinese government objective to ethnically cleanse the minority Muslim, Turkic peoples.
Rising up against a faceless bureaucracy
The last time this scale of protests took place against China’s giant bureaucracy was the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests which led to the murder of at least several hundred and as many as several thousand individuals.
Unlike smaller protests in China since then, this current wave of manifestations has a different character.
From Shanghai to the COVID origin city of Wuhan, large crowds gathered in the thousands to speak out against the amount of control the government has over their lives, with some pushing over barriers and clashing with police.
It’s a buildup of several years of intense COVID restrictions, and it’s also combined with significant anger at the political and economic restrictions that have been placed on Chinese citizens.
There were various smaller protests in October including a lot of public graffiti and November also saw pushback on the streets of Guangzhou against the zero-COVID restrictions, but nothing on this scale.
While most of the world gets back to a more normalized way of life, China’s zero-COVID policy has only gotten stricter, forcing tests, isolation, and movement tracking to take place at all hours of the day and every location.
For its part, the Chinese government says that the protests have nothing to do with the fire in Urumqi and that a false narrative is being drawn to undermine Xi and his rule. Authorities have increased police presence on the streets and state-backed media have said that zero-COVID is extremely effective and is being opposed due to a Western-backed plot.
The bottom line
The protests in China are happening because frustrations over COVID and government authoritarianism are combining to activate some people who have reached their limit.
It’s fair to ask if the Western media is amplifying these protests as part of an anti-China agenda, and a few thousand people in dozens of cities is relatively tiny compared to a total population of 1.4 billion.
Nonetheless, even a few thousand people protesting publicly in China is highly significant and represents a considerable amount of bravery and political exposure for those involved. The fact that it’s managed to break past internet censorship and reach the world is also of no small consequence.
China is a highly controlled society where stepping out of line is both culturally and politically taboo. Trust in government and sacrificing for the good of the whole are embedded in the political culture and rules.
The fact that any large protests have broken out against zero-COVID and government policies is notable. These developments will be important to watch going forward to see if they continue to erupt or whether protests are successfully quelled and disappear.