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5 things you need to know about China’s COVID-19 lockdown protests

China’s ruling Communist Party is facing some of its harshest criticism in decades over the country’s strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy that some say is putting China’s people and economy in danger

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Policemen pin down and arrest a protester during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China, on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.

Policemen pin down and arrest a protester during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China, on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. Authorities eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas but affirmed China’s severe “zero-COVID” strategy Monday after crowds demanded President Xi Jinping resign during protests against controls that confine millions of people to their homes.

Associated Press

Nearly three years after the emergence of COVID-19, most of the world has started on a path to normalcy. China, however, seems to be trailing in this aspect, with large-scale lockdowns still being implemented nationwide as a result of the country’s strict zero-COVID policy.

In a rare occurrence, the people of China are fighting back against the government, protesting in resistance of the lockdowns, per The New York Times.

1. Why people are protesting in China

There are several factors that have sparked the recent protests in China, but the underlying factor is the country’s strict zero-COVID policy, where authorities have shut down parts of the country in an attempt to control the virus.

Although the policy has kept COVID-19 infection rates lower than other countries, China’s Communist Party has faced concern from residents that the lockdowns are leading to larger economic and human concerns. As businesses stay closed and residents are forced to isolate for weeks at a time, the Associated Press reports that many have limited access to food and medicine while in isolation.

While these strong emotions pertaining to lockdown seem to have been bubbling under the surface for quite some time, tensions peaked after a fire in an apartment building killed 10 people on Thursday in Urumqi, per BBC.

Many blame COVID restrictions for the deaths, given that residents could not escape the building due to the building being physically locked down, Reuters reported.

CNN added that the lockdown measures had also delayed firefighters from reaching and saving the lives of victims.

2. Protests of this scale are rare in China

CNN stated that nationwide public protests are “exceedingly rare in China, where the Communist Party has tightened its grip on all aspects of life, launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, wiped out much of a civil society and built a high-tech surveillance state.”

But protests in China aren’t unheard of, TIME reported. However, they don’t usually reach the same magnitude of these COVID lockdown protests.

Usually protests in China are location or issue specific, “from users demanding wage hikes to homebuyers decrying delayed housing projects,” per TIME. Usually, China’s prominent surveillance systems are quick to put an end to such uprisings, which is what makes these COVID protests unique.

3. A nationwide movement in China

As previously mentioned, protests in China usually don’t reach a nationwide level, and are usually quickly shut down by authorities. These protests have been some of the nations largest in decades, the Associated Press reported, with people from over eight major Chinese cities participating.

Blank white pieces of paper have become the symbol for the rebellion, representing defiance against China’s Communist party’s censorship and ‘dictatorship’, per AP. Students in Hong Kong have rallied together, holding up pieces of paper chanting phrases among the likes of “No PCR tests but freedom!” and “Oppose dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”

4. Dissecting ‘zero-COVID’ policy in China

China’s tight ‘zero-COVID’ policy was created in an attempt to control the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan in 2019, according to The New York Times. Under this policy, people who have contracted or been exposed to the virus are required to isolate. If an outbreak gets severe enough, entire cities can be placed on lockdown.

According to BBC, other measures include mass testing where cases have been reported, along with isolation and a complete shutdown of all local businesses and shops until no new cases of COVID-19 are reported.

5. Authorities in China respond to protests

In response to the nationwide uprising, the Chinese government eased some of their zero-COVID policies on Monday, according to VOA.

The city of Bejing announced on Monday that it would “no longer set up gates to block access to apartment compound where infections are found,” PBS reported. But the announcement made no mention of the protests, the deadly apartment fire last week, or the demands from protesters calling on President Xi Jinping to resign.

“Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” said a city official in charge of epidemic control according to China News Service, via PBS.

Guangzhou, one of the biggest COVID hotspots in the country also announced that it will no longer be requiring mass testing for some residents, citing a need to conserve resources.

Urumqui, where the fire occurred, and another city announced that markets and businesses with low infection risk would be allowed to reopen this week. The LA Times comments that the move may have been an attempt to ease anger among protesters, but analysts don’t expect the country to diminish its zero-COVID approach.