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What makes China’s wave of protests different this time

It’s not Tiananmen, but Xi Jinping faces his first China-wide protests.

Protesters shout slogans during a protest against China’s strict zero-Covid measures in Beijing, China, on November 28.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across China in defiance of the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdown policies.

The information coming out of China offers an incomplete picture, but reports suggest that workers, students, rural residents, and middle-class people have joined protesters. It’s that diverse mix of people across so many locales that has some international outlets calling these protests the biggest threat to China’s ruling Communist Party since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The precipitating event: Last week, a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, killed at least 10 people. And protesters have responded by blaming the deaths on the harsh zero-Covid policy that is closely associated with President Xi Jinping. For the past three years, the Chinese government has used its surveillance state to implement a program that cordons off entire districts and communities at the first sign of an infection.

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last month brought an intense focus on the country’s elite politics and how Xi has consolidated power. So much has focused on Chinese leadership, and mass protests present an opportunity to think about China’s people. Why are the protesters resisting the Chinese government’s policies now, and what do they want?

To explore the underlying grievances expressed in China’s public squares, the role of workers in the nascent movement, and how the government might clamp down in response, I reached out to Eli Friedman, a sociologist at Cornell University. Friedman teaches about how China’s rapid rise as a global economic power has affected the country’s workers, who have been drivers of the demonstrations. He is the author of The Urbanization of People: The Politics of Development, Labor Markets, and Schooling in the Chinese City.

The protests have not yet reached 1989 levels, according to Friedman. But the uprising presents something that hasn’t happened since Xi took power in 2013. “For the first time under Xi Jinping, we have a nationwide protest movement,” he told me, “because nearly all Chinese people, at least Chinese people in large cities, have been subjected to similar kinds of surveillance and controls on their mobility over the past three years, and people are clearly fed up with it.”

Though China’s government represses its citizens, protests have endured over the years and with some regularity. But they tend to be very local. As Friedman put it, “What’s really unique about what we’re seeing now is that it is nationwide, that it is responding to a policy not just of some corrupt local officials or some bad boss, but quite specifically to a policy of the central government. Even more specifically, to a policy that Xi Jinping himself has taken responsibility for.”

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why are these protests happening now in China?

Going back to October, there’s been a whole series of protests against lockdowns. They first emerged in October when thousands of workers at a Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, a large provincial capital in central China, were put in what’s called the closed loop management system. They were not allowed to leave the factory. And as the virus began circulating within the factory that has 100,000 [workers], people were concerned for their health. People within the factory were put into quarantine and were not being given adequate medical attention, or in some cases, even adequate food. People were worried about their livelihood and so thousands of workers just escaped, literally just jumped over the fence, because their employer was not letting them out.

Police officers wearing face masks hold hands to form a human chain near metal fencing at night. Behind them are protesters.
Police officers stand guard during a protest against zero-Covid and epidemic prevention restrictions in Beijing, China, on November 27, 2022.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In November, there’s a series of other events, including some big protests in migrant worker communities in Guangzhou in response to a lockdown — again, they were not allowed to leave their houses, so they’re dependent on the government delivering them everything that they need to live on, and were not getting adequate medical attention and were not getting enough food. There were some riots there. Then there were more protests and very intense and violent riots in the third week of November, again at the Zhengzhou Foxconn facility.

That’s the prelude to the really big explosion, which happened following a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. The official death toll in that fire was that 10 people died, and there are credible suggestions that as many as a couple dozen people perished.

This really struck a chord nationally, because hundreds of millions of people have had some experience over the past three years being subjected to these lockdowns, and in some cases, literally locked in their apartments and unable to leave.

Although the specific information is debated — and the government has not been totally forthcoming — there are reasonable suspicions that some of these people might not have died had they not been under lockdown. After that, we see the whole deluge of protests in every city in the country. So that’s the fuse for these big protests.

The reason that the past three years of “zero-Covid” are really important is because we have these seemingly particular events — migrant workers in Guangzhou, factory workers in Zhengzhou, and then this fire in Urumqi. The response from residents resonated nationwide. For the first time under Xi Jinping, we have a nationwide protest movement, because nearly all Chinese people, at least Chinese people in large cities, have been subjected to similar kinds of surveillance and controls on their mobility over the past three years, and people are clearly fed up with it.

Who is in this crowd? You’ve described that it has a lot of the components of a labor protest, but reports show students, people in rural areas, and middle-class people united in response to this country-wide lockdown policy.

It is unbelievably diverse. We do have people who are in factories, who are migrant workers, who are highly exploited workers producing iPhones and other electronic gadgets that Americans and other people consume. We have other kinds of workers, the ones in Guangzhou, where [there are] very small garment workshops in very dense, informal housing arrangements. We have students at super elite universities — Tsinghua University, which is Xi Jinping’s alma mater. Dozens of universities around the country have had protests.

Then if you look at the protests in other big coastal cities, like Shanghai or Beijing, you have a mixture — it’s hard to tell just from looking at the crowd, but certainly some pretty well-off white-collar workers.

The fact that the fire happened in Urumqi is interesting and important. Because Xinjiang is a place where the Uyghur minority, who are Muslims and are a minority nationally, but they represent at least a plurality, if not an absolute majority of the population in Xinjiang. They’ve been subjected to a very intense regime of repression, surveillance, policing, and mass incarceration over the last five years. Most if not all of the people who died in the fire were Uyghurs. If we look at the protests in Urumqi itself, it appears, though it can be hard to tell, that most of the people are Han, from the dominant ethnicity.

The lockdown is a national policy, a blanket policy, around de-mobilizing people. But the effects have been very, very different.

What I think is happening is we have opposition to the lockdown as this kind of umbrella. It’s this category that has affected nearly all Chinese people in one way or another. Within that, people are raising all kinds of other demands. The workers at Foxconn were concerned with pay. The people in Xinjiang, to the extent that Uyghurs are able to openly speak, have big concerns about the broader repression of Muslim minorities. You have the students who are holding up the white pieces of paper, and that’s an expression of opposition to censorship and demands for free speech.

Speaking of this surveillance state, how do these protests travel through the country when information doesn’t really flow freely? What techniques are protesters using to circumvent online censorship? What strategies are working?

First, digital censorship in China is comprehensive, but it is not perfect. So even if you’re using the Chinese internet, China-based apps like WeChat or Weibo, they’re not 100 percent perfect. They have well-developed AI that tries to anticipate certain kinds of things that they will scrub. They have teams of tens of thousands of people who are paid censors who are looking through this stuff. But there are still collective-action events that get through or things that are critical of the government that get through, particularly when there is a large quantity of things happening at the same time.

The second thing is, particularly for people who are highly educated, it is still possible to use VPNs to get over the Great Firewall. People have access to Twitter and are posting photos, or sending videos or photos to international sites, and then people even within China who can still access those sites. It’s a relatively small percentage of the population.

But the third thing — which I think is actually most important for understanding these particular mobilizations — is that they’re just doing it the old-fashioned way, where they know people in the community. If you look at this whole sequence, the first event was Foxconn. Well, Foxconn has 200,000 people living in these incredibly tightly packed dormitories. They just were talking to people face to face. The next event in Guangzhou was these informal housing communities where the whole community was locked down, but you could move about within the community and people within that community were all having the same experience of worrying that they didn’t have enough food. So they talked to each other, and they went out and they tore down the fences and fought with the police.

Even in some of the bigger cities, certainly in Beijing and Shanghai, you have people who are communicating online about going to specific locations, but you’ve had other smaller-scale protests, where it’s just people within a large housing community. If they have lockdowns in these communities with thousands of people on the inside, they can’t leave, but they can talk to their neighbors.

How do these protests look in contrast to other Chinese protests in recent memory?

In the Chinese context, they are very, very different. There are a lot of protests in China, and there has been, for the last generation, protests among workers, among peasants who are having their land taken, some smaller-scale things among students, among feminist activists. Environmental issues have generated some big protests, as well as ethnic minorities. Tibetans have also had some major protest movements. But almost all of these cases have been very localized, in response to some specific local grievance.

What’s really unique about what we’re seeing now is that it is nationwide, that it is responding to a policy not just of some corrupt local officials or some bad boss, but quite specifically to a policy of the central government. Even more specifically, to a policy that Xi Jinping himself has taken responsibility for.

Is this a threat to the CCP after the party congress? Is it potentially the biggest threat since the Tiananmen Square protests?

This is not remotely a 1989 kind of situation yet.

One of the reasons that people jumped to this — something China scholars talk about is collapse-ology, which is like, every time something goes a little bit wrong for the Communist Party, people assume that it’s on the verge of collapse. That gains traction because the state itself sets such a high bar for what social order looks like. In the United States or other democratic societies, if you have a protest of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people in the nation’s capital, that is really just not a big deal for the state.

In the lead-up to the 20th Congress, there was this one guy who hung these banners off of a bridge, expressing opposition to zero-Covid policy and calling for the end of Xi Jinping’s rule. That was huge international news. That guy’s slogans are now being chanted all around the world.

The government sets a very high standard for what social order looks like, and when there’s a deviation from that, people assume that means that things are completely falling apart, that they’ve lost control. And the truth of the matter is, that’s not the case. This is a real challenge, and we’ll see how they respond in the coming days. But, absent some kind of internal split in the party — and there was as yet no evidence that that is the case — this movement itself can be pretty easily repressed. The state has just overwhelming resources at its capacity. Even if we look at what’s happened in the last 24 hours, there are many fewer protests, many people have already gone to jail. The costs of participation will continue to escalate.

How do people in China see the zero-Covid policy?

All these questions that people are asking, which are legitimate questions, like how come in the last three years the Chinese government — which can mobilize vast resources on a scale that no other country in the world can do in a short period of time — how come they haven’t built more ICU beds to increase the capacity for real outbreaks? They can mandate that people don’t leave their apartments for months on end, but how come we can’t get more people vaccinated? And so there’s a real frustration about that; people understand that the virus doesn’t have to be super deadly, but the government has not been doing the things that would allow them to learn to live with the virus.

Workers in hazmat-like suits carry a hose and tanks across a bridge on a river.
Workers disinfect an area on the Liangma River, a popular area for local residents and the site of a protest against Covid measures the day before, on November 28, 2022, in Beijing, China.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The wrong answer would be for the government to say, “Okay, tomorrow, there’s no rules, go for it,” because in fact, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of mostly elderly people would die. What they need to do is develop a very clear plan for exiting zero-Covid — timelines for how to vaccinate all these people, to increase health capacity, particularly in underserved communities. And they’re not doing that. And so that leaves many people with a sense that this is just going to be life forever, which leaves people feeling really kind of despondent, especially when they see every other country in the world doing something different.

What else do Americans need to know about China’s protests?

Sometimes Americans are like, “Well, this is interesting that that’s happening over there, but why should we care about this?”

Aside from the fact that American companies are implicated in these closed loop management models, I think there’s a broader issue around the question of surveillance. Because in order for zero-Covid to operate, it has required a huge expansion of state surveillance capacities. Now, the movements of people are very closely monitored. There have been times when they’ve locked down entire districts of the city, thousands of people, because there was one positive case. The only way to enforce that is through these apps that are tracking your movement through the city.

We don’t have that in the United States, obviously, and I don’t think that there’s a likelihood that the federal government will be able to implement something like that. But I think a lot of Americans and people in other countries outside of China do have concerns about surveillance, either by governments or by corporations.

Just in the last few days, you’ve seen videos of police on the streets in Beijing and Shanghai, going around and just asking random people to look at their phones. They go through your phone and see if you have any photos of protests, if you have any banned apps or anything like that, and that can land you in trouble. It is important for us to pay attention and be in solidarity with these protests.

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