Press release
4 min read

Protests in China

After a fire killed at least ten citizens in a locked-down, barricaded building in Urumqi, Xinjiang, cascading protests in at least a dozen cities across China have called for an end to the strict Covid-19 measures. Compared to previous protests, where citizens primarily voiced specific grievances about being forbidden to leave their homes or losses of income, these protests have rallied broader segments of the public – from workers to students, and the urban middle class – against arbitrary enforcement of Zero-Covid measures. In a few cases, protesters even called for greater political freedoms. 

Katja Drinhausen, Head of Program Politics and Society at MERICS, comments: 

  • On the reasons for citizens taking to the streets and on what makes these protests special:

The protests didn’t come out of thin air. Despite general acceptance of the government’s mission to keep the virus in check and prevent high death tolls, public support has been eroded by the arbitrary nature and collateral damage of government policies. Discontent over months of restricted movement, a lack of income, increasing food prices and the rising death-toll of strict Zero-Covid rules has built up over past year – and is now erupting. 

Despite their relatively small size, it is notable that protests and expressions of dissent are happening both online and offline, and in very different parts of the country. While protesters mainly raise livelihood issues, they also target a key policy adopted by the central government and in some cases systemic issues, such as lack of respect for freedom of expression, rule of law and individual human rights. 

  • On the government’s response and what to expect in the coming weeks

The initial reaction by police forces has been relatively retrained, especially in Shanghai and other larger cities. But now that the police have dispersed protests, the party state will likely use everything at their disposal to contain and prevent further outbreak and spread of protest activities. After all, this is a scenario for which they have long been preparing. Social media platforms have been severely censored. Public and state security organs will be scouring audio and video recordings of the protests both from state surveillance and online platforms to identify individuals to detain or threaten, as has already happened in some cases. We should expect continued repression of citizen action in the coming months. 

  • On systemic risks or potential threats of the protests to the rule of party and state leader Xi Jinping?

Despite initial containment of protests, the pent-up discontent over livelihood issues and arbitrary state policies may continue to foment underneath the surface. The key question is: will the party be able to solve these complex issues before further protests erupt. Compared to past crises, there is no easy way out of this. Many citizens have exhausted their savings and patience after months of recurring lockdowns. The government has limited options to regain support with quick payouts of social benefits at a time where government finances, too, are under strain and pandemic-management will continue to hold back economic development. 

MERICS analyst Vincent Brussee comments: 

  • On the reasons why the government will stick to Zero-Covid in light of such discontent:

China’s authorities have backed themselves into a corner, without any good way out. Zero-Covid initially bought it time and saved millions of lives, but they failed to increase vaccination rates and health care capacity. A sudden re-opening today could cause more than a million deaths. While especially young urbanites want restrictions gone, many others still fear a loss of control over the virus. The government is now trying to walk a tightrope between avoiding mass lockdowns and losing control. As the protests now make clear, this lack of commitment to a clear strategy is creating fear and anxiety for everyone in China. 

  • On options for an exit strategy out of Zero-Covid:

There is a very narrow corridor out of this conundrum. Authorities would first need to create a window of opportunity to prepare for re-opening. This requires continuing strategic measures and small-scale lockdowns, while curbing the arbitrary nature of measures and supporting negatively affected areas. In this time, they would need to quickly increase vaccination rates for the elderly, improve scientific health communication to the public, and prepare health care resources such as intensive care beds and antiviral drugs. Opening-up should then be gradual and follow vaccination rates. This is not too different from the 20-point adjustments released in early November in principle, but poor communication and coordination led to a poor and uncoordinated implementation.