Author: Eli Szydlo
February 15, 2023
Unprecedented, large-scale protests have been reported in China since November 2022, with protestors willing to be unmasked in their calls for change. On the surface, these protests are about the aggressive COVID restrictions in the country. However, it is necessary to fully examine the rising tensions over the past year that have led to the recent public outcry. Further, it is necessary to understand the context in which these protests are taking place by reviewing the established policies and how these protests have moved beyond general frustrations regarding COVID restrictions.
While the measures implemented by China to prevent and control the spread of COVID appeared to be effective for earlier variants, the policy had fallen behind in addressing the newer strains. Public outrage grew in response to the severity and length of the lockdowns. And, while many in China are inspired by a sense of collectivism to protect their neighbors and families, these policies resulted in significant restrictions on movement and affected basic rights. The lockdown measures also led to residents being locked in apartment buildings, food shortages, and slowdowns in emergency response, all of which raised tensions to the point that the world recently witnessed.
Zero-Covid Policy in 2022
The zero-COVID policy is the name commonly used referring to China’s “dynamic clearing”. In April 2022, the Atlantic Council published a report analyzing the use of the zero-COVID policy. The report highlighted the use of quarantines, lockdowns, and testing that resulted in very low COVID rates in China after the Wuhan outbreak. However, the report also noted that these measures started to fail in 2021 as more transmissible variants developed. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Chinese government has avoided the use of international vaccines, and those produced domestically against early variants were showing little impact against the new strains.
As early as February 2022, increased concerns regarding the zero-COVID policy outpoured, specifically related to the policy's sustainability. For example, residents in Hong Kong preparing for the Olympics experienced “a microcosm of the country during the pandemic”. “Snap lockdowns” were reported ahead of the Olympics as well, including one case where office workers were quarantined without notice, due to a single case of COVID. The workers ended up living out of their offices for the duration of the lockdown.
In early November 2022, China recorded a six-month high in COVID cases, eliciting further questions about the effectiveness of the zero-COVID policy which the government maintained. By mid-November, cases were continuing to rise despite ongoing lockdowns, and with state media highlighting the benefits of the policy. Some of these lockdowns happened frequently, and at the earliest sign of infection with limited notice.
For example, on November 1st, an auto dealer in Northeastern China was on a video call with his father when the father began to have trouble breathing. While the son called for medical assistance, he did not realize that the building in which his father resided had been locked down unannounced due to suspicion of COVID. Despite being located five minutes from the residence, the ambulance took over an hour to arrive, and by then it was too late.
The BBC reported on protests around the iPhone factory in Zhengzhou in late November. The protests began in response to the factory shutting down due to COVID concerns, and workers were then replaced by new hires. These initial protests were largely localized until an apartment fire in Xinjiang on November 24th caused significant public outcry. The apartment fire resulted in the deaths of 10 people, including a three-year-old child, and reports indicate it took the fire department over three hours to respond. Additional reports claim people within the burning building were prevented from fleeing due to the lockdown in place. At the time of the fire, the Xinjiang region had been under lockdown for over 100 days.
While authorities denied the deaths and slow response to the fire were a result of the zero-COVID policy, public discontent reached its limit and the localized protests expanded across the country. These protests were called unprecedented by first-hand witnesses, and the protestors are viewed as dissidents. Although it began as a call for a return to normalcy and a protest against the zero-COVID policy, it evolved into a demand for democratic reform and for President Xi Jinping to resign.
The protests were met with significant police response and have systematically shut down. Many in China have expressed feelings of shock as to how widespread the protests were but remain skeptical as to how impactful they may be due to China’s one-party system. Despite the skepticism, these protests are beginning to have an impact not only in China but internationally.
Within China, regulations on the zero-COVID policy started loosening before the end of 2022. Lockdown measures and immediate quarantines appeared to have been eased in response to the protests. While this is inspiring for those protesting within the country and raises hope for further changes to the policy, these successes also are positive signs for those living outside of China. Many have begun protesting again, this time attempting to raise awareness for issues regarding Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the ongoing persecution of the Uyghur people, hoping for the possibility of accountability and further change.
China is continuing to make changes to it's zero-COVID policy. In December, China announced significant rollbacks to the COVID prevention methods, such as limiting the lockdowns and permitting schools without infections to resume classes. Early January 2023 showed a dramatic increase in movement across China’s border due to reductions in border restrictions. Now travelers only have to show a negative COVID test, resulting in tens of thousands of people crossing both ways between mainland China and Hong Kong.
It appears the protests have motivated the government to withdraw the more extreme restrictions in place; the government announced in early December that they would be reducing other aspects of the zero-COVID policy. In addition to the rules regarding schools, travel, and lockdowns, the changes allow the ability for at-home isolation, removing QR codes on mobile phones that track health information, and increasing vaccines for the elderly.
Since the scaling back of restrictions, China has reported on the negative effects. Concerns were raised that the sudden reduction in restrictions could result in new variants and an explosion in cases of COVID. Although reported cases have increased, the World Health Organization (WHO) commented that cases were increasing before the easing of restrictions and were due to ineffective prevention methods. Moreover, while China has publicly reported a significant increase in COVID-related deaths since their policy adjustments, the WHO states the Chinese government had been severely undercutting reports on deaths during restrictions and are only now reporting more accurately.
Although the protests began in response to strict COVID policies, the outrage grew to encompass larger dissatisfaction with the government. Protestors voiced frustrations with the status quo, specifically referencing concerns over freedom of speech, neglect of workers' rights, and failure to address economic concerns. This status quo can be seen through legal measures taken against the protestors as restrictions are being lifted. Additional reports describe protestors being tracked and identified using electronic tracking systems including social media and messaging apps, and upon their arrests are faced with interrogation at police departments.
While the policy itself was implemented to prevent the spread of the pandemic, further examination showed it was less effective the longer it was in place. In addition, the government's extreme measures aimed at reducing the impact of the pandemic, along with the limitations on freedom of speech and the rights of it's people, are intrinsically connected. This mounting discontent caused the protests to quickly grow to a scale that nobody has seen in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Protests like those in China remind us that long-term frustrations can quickly be embroiled in other issues. The reduction in restrictions demonstrates the power of the civilian population when voiced en masse. While the hope is the Chinese government will take measures to ensure the rights of their people are respected, the immediate legal trouble many protestors now find themselves in makes that doubtful.