China in Protest

A ChinaFile Conversation

Over the weekend, large demonstrations broke out in cities across China. The protests followed news, spread rapidly across Chinese and international social media, that a fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumchi (Urumqi) on Friday had turned deadly, claiming at least 10 lives, possibly as a result of the region’s COVID lockdowns. Throngs of residents took to the streets in anger, where the singing of “The Internationale” and China’s national anthem mingled with calls to end the zero-COVID policy. In Shanghai, where protesters gathered Saturday on the city’s Urumchi Road, chants expressed both support for the fire’s victims as well as calls for the lifting of zero-COVID restrictions, and even demands—extraordinary in a country that does not tolerate political dissent—that China’s Communist Party and its newly reappointed leader, Xi Jinping, “step down.” On Sunday, demonstrators appeared at multiple locations across Beijing, including Peking and Tsinghua universities, where some called for “universal rights” and “freedom of expression” while others held aloft blank sheets of paper, symbols of the many things they were forbidden to say.

We asked ChinaFile contributors for initial thoughts on the protests’ origins and significance. —The Editors


The anti-lockdown protests in China over the past few days surprised outside observers. How could what had seemed to be overwhelming public support for lockdown policies in 2020 give way to today’s radical protests?

Some of the reasons are well rehearsed. While there are still serious fears of the coronavirus, public perception of how to manage COVID-19 has changed, especially after the Shanghai lockdown earlier this year. Stringent lockdown and quarantine policies have not only restricted citizens’ mobility for too long, but have also gravely impaired livelihoods, especially of migrant workers and other disadvantaged social groups. Worse still, many harms and injustices have been perpetuated in the name of the zero-COVID policy, the most recent being the apartment fire in Urumchi which reportedly claimed at least 10 lives. Scandals over grassroots bureaucrats and businesses abusing the zero-COVID policy for power or profit keep appearing on social media. The accumulated public resentment finally burst out.

That said, let’s not exaggerate the surprise factor in the current protests. Protests happen in China all the time, and outside observers like us hasten to greet them as if they were an exotic rarity. Such exoticization blinds us to the determination and skills of ordinary Chinese citizens in handling their own affairs, including through protests.

In fact, the seeds of the current protests were already sown during the lockdown of Wuhan at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Despite their support of the Wuhan lockdown in 2020, citizens never stopped voicing their anger or concerns. They did not protest the lockdown policies themselves, but the mismanagement of those policies—such as when residential committees failed to deliver promised groceries. At that point, an implicit social contract had been broken, and citizens found reason to protest. To be sure, in 2020, they aired their grievances on social media instead of in the streets or on college campuses. But they showed the same determination and creativity as their fellow slogan-shouting citizens in 2022. It behooves observers of Chinese politics and society to always remember and acknowledge the activist potential of the Chinese citizenry, but also to know that such potential may work in seemingly unexpected ways. Citizens in China can be active supporters or vocal critics of their government’s policies depending on how well or badly the policies serve their interests.

Observing the zero-COVID policy’s fall from grace in the eyes of the Chinese public over the past nine months has been quite the experience. I track Chinese social media discussion trends relatively closely, and the transformation has been stark: around the time of the Winter Olympics, there was no significant dissent on Weibo or in my Weixin “friends circle.” Instead, there was quite a lot of mockery of lax foreign prevention policies and much pride in China’s success at keeping transmission and deaths very low. In sharp contrast, by mid-November, it was already obvious that the tide of public opinion was turning decisively against the government’s COVID-prevention system. Then the Urumqi incident happened, and social anger exploded. What changed?

Some of the macro-level causes are fairly obvious: First and perhaps foremost, the economy has deteriorated severely under the weight of lockdowns. The service industry felt especially close to the brink during my three-month stay in Beijing over the summer. Youth unemployment now hovers near 20 percent. In years past, the state might have stepped in with some sort of stimulus to ease the pain, but zero-COVID has also exacted an enormous toll on the fiscal health of the state apparatus, which has been further accentuated by the now nationwide decline in real estate prices. These factors have combined to depress household income and wealth more severely than most under-30 Chinese residents have ever experienced.

Second, after nearly three years of periodic lockdowns, many people’s patience with being physically constrained may simply have run out. The strain on families with school-age children, in particular, has been enormous, and has accumulated over time especially in the form of deteriorating educational and developmental outcomes. The contrast with near-universal reopening elsewhere in the world—driven home by the sight of tens of thousands of unmasked fans at the World Cup over the past week—must have made these constraints all the more aggravating.

Third, several episodes of local government mismanagement, corruption, and abuse of power likely eroded public trust in the state. The logistical failures in Shanghai during the early phases of its spring lockdown are perhaps the most well-known of these. Other examples include the Henan health code scandal in June, and a series of social outcries at collusion between PCR testing manufacturers and local officials. The independent significance of these issues is somewhat debatable, but they each aggravated a gradually deteriorating social situation.

Beyond these background issues, the most immediate cause of these late November protests seems to be a lack of consistency in the government’s post-20th Party Congress political signaling. For much of early-to-mid November, most signals—the “20 Guidelines” issued by the central government, the reluctance of Guangzhou and Shijiazhuang to lock down despite escalating cases—suggested a substantial loosening of controls. The initial public social media reaction, despite some anxiety over COVID spread, was largely positive. Then came the reversals of the past week: Large parts of Beijing were placed under lockdown, Shijiazhuang and Guangzhou had to escalate their restrictions, and government rhetoric once again struck a more alarming tone. For many, this dashing of new-founded hope may well have been the last straw that set them fully against government controls.

The policy backtracking also left local government officials and agents without coherent regulatory mandates to rely upon. During Beijing’s partial lockdown in May and June, policy documents issued by the city government gave district and subdistrict officials a relatively clear set of directives, which they passed down to managers in residential communities for actual implementation. With the issuance of the “20 Guidelines,” however, the government’s official posture had become more nuanced: “do this, but also be sure to not do too much of it.” The backtracking discussed above suggests that even the central government was, for a time, unsure of what the correct balance should be. Small wonder, then, that many local officials seemed genuinely bewildered on what exactly they were asked to do. Perhaps sensing the confusion, some segments of the population began to publicly question the legality of local lockdowns, further accelerating the erosion of public trust in COVID control policies.

Had the central government been able to maintain a higher level of policy consistency and coherence, it may well have been able to ease, or at least suppress, public unhappiness enough to make it to next spring without a major social blow-up. Instead, by muddling through its messaging after the Party Congress, it now finds itself in the tightest sociopolitical circumstances China has experienced in three decades. Decisive and clearly communicated easing of zero-COVID controls, paired with a stronger vaccination/booster push, might still be able to defuse social tensions. It is hard to see how anything else could.

The protests across China in recent days have been read by some foreign media as a referendum on Xi Jinping himself. While there are some amongst the protestors who can be heard explicitly calling for him to stand down, the majority of people appear to be simply fed up with the continued epidemic-prevention measures and the Kafkaesque travails of daily life in zero-COVID China. The economy has stagnated and it has become apparent, through social media and the packed stadiums of the mask-free World Cup, that China is singular in its desire to keep the population free of the virus at such stark costs.

The Party has repeatedly doubled down on telling people that these measures are for their own good because they preserve life—the slogan often heard is “people first life first” (人民至上 生命至上, renmin zhishang shengming zhishang). As Xi told a group of experts in June 2020, “People only have one life. We must protect it. Everything we do starts from this principle.” This now sounds hollow, as suicides mount and incidents like the Guizhou bus crash and the Urumchi fire show that epidemic prevention policies are now a threat to life itself.

This mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality has caused enough anger to see people on the streets. What the protests have also revealed is that information travels in China, even in conditions of such extreme censorship. That some of the most arresting scenes have come from Urumchi Road in Shanghai tells us that the fire in Urumchi has been seen by the people of Shanghai. That some of the protestors have been quoting the banner that was unfurled on the Sitong bridge in Beijing just before the 20th Party Congress tells us that that striking lone protest has managed to quietly bury itself into the hearts of many people.

In my book The Wobbling Pivot, I argued that in imperial times the government of China had survived upon the self-sufficiency of its local communities, and for that reason was incapable of suppressing popular uprisings of a critical scale. This instability-by-design persisted through the Republican period, and though the Chinese Communist Party found a way to provide China its first truly large government, early People’s Republic of China leaders (all born in the last decades of the Qing empire) adapted the governing style of imperial times: The state must be able to wobble under the pressures of aroused public opinion, but not fall. Officials needed to remember that in an all-out fight, government would be no match for the people.

The juxtaposition of the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress and the spread of protests across the country is striking. On the one hand, Xi Jinping appeared to have nearly completed his control of the Party. As the Hu Jintao column of the Party very publicly collapsed, the Jiang Zemin base was coopted, and Xi was set up to continue as General Secretary indefinitely. On the other hand, the incompetence of Xi’s attempts to manage the social and economic impacts of his anti-COVID policies has been exposed to a greater degree than previously, and the ability of the Party—whether in the grasp of Xi or not—to govern the country is being questioned more seriously in both China and abroad than perhaps at any time since 1989.

Xi remains stuck as the rest of the world has moved on to COVID coexistence based on vaccines and bulked up health systems that are superior to China’s. His one-note reflexive lock-downs and refusal to import effective foreign mRNA vaccines has painted the entire country into a corner where, according to Xi, any degree of COVID disease should be regarded as more terrifying than the prospect of frequent or permanent unemployment because of the deepening shutdown of parts of the economy; or serious illness, injury, and death (including by suicide) after being locked up for weeks with inadequate food and medical care; or forced transfers to inhospitable environments.

Now, the state-induced November 24 calamity of a high-rise fire in Urumchi killing locked-in residents while firefighters appear to have been locked out has helped spark a comprehensive protest voicing deepening suspicion that the government is flogging public panic about COVID as a way of obscuring its failures, while silencing both public and private criticism with surveillance of unprecedented intrusion and ruthlessness. Not only Urumchi but Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Xi’an, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, and Nanjing have reported large demonstrations since November 24, on a scale that Chinese compare fearfully and hopefully with May of 1989. The Xinjiang provincial government is showing signs of wobbling in order to not fall, but Xi may prove the first Chinese national leader of modern times to fail the wobble.

It is quite impossible to say anything definite about what is happening in China now. Information is at the mercy of one’s circles and social media feeds. It appears that there are a number of simultaneous but uncoordinated social explosions of frustration, anger, anguish, and pent up pain. Some of it appears very political—“Xi Jinping, step down” in downtown Shanghai; “freedom of speech” at universities—and some of it seems to articulate a total emotional exhaustion with the “dynamic zero-COVID” regime rolling through people’s lives in increasingly arbitrary and willful fashion. The current round of explosive collective anger, we must recall, began with the large-scale Foxconn worker unrest, where conditions of labor are normally abysmal and, in the recently-implemented “closed loop” system, are now intolerable. (“Closed loop” refers to factory-dormitory trajectories that reduce to an absolute minimum extraneous activity that might introduce infection.) As Eli Friedman points out in an interview with Jacobin about the recent labor actions in Zhengzhou, the fact that workers now are escaping the factory grounds by surreptitiously scaling fences and perimeter walls indicates that there is a prison-like situation at the giant facility where iPhones are produced.

I leave it to others to trace a clearer timeline of events. The point I want to make is that, as with all such efforts at chronology, where one begins matters. I choose to begin with workers, to emphasize what our commentariat now will most likely ignore: that the current explosion cannot be seen as a purely urban or educated class phenomenon, but rather is rooted in the brutal regimes of wealth accumulation, labor extraction, and global-domestic political power that have grown and metastasized in the past several decades. As Bill Hurst has roughly analyzed in his Twitter feed, the layering of unrests since 1989—in villages where rapacious land grabs dispossess peasants; in factories, in mines, and on digital platforms where labor regimes are cruelly extractive; among poorer urban denizens and migrants defrauded by real estate and banking concerns backed by municipal governments; among feminists and those refusing to conform to patriarchal modes of social organization—has mostly bypassed urban petty bourgeois and capitalist classes who have benefited hugely from the systems of oppression upon which their comfortable lives have been fashioned. The pandemic and increasing disruption of those lives have now registered as intolerable.

What we are seeing now is a number of brave urban folks coming out of their homes to contest the conditions of their partially locked-down lives. They perhaps have not linked their difficulties to the lives of their poorer, more exploited compatriots; in fact, it is a fair bet that most have not. Yet, the spectacle of 10 Uyghur deaths in an inferno in Urumchi, an earlier bus crash near Guiyang that killed 27 COVID evacuees, the Lanzhou toddler who perished from gas inhalation in his sealed-off home . . . the toll is taking its toll. Urban denizens are legible to themselves and to the international media. They are capable of scaling the great firewall and posting on global social media sites, thus becoming fully visible as a collective to a diasporic populace of angry young folks abroad who can amplify and articulate their own political despair in resonant dialogue with their friends and families at home. They speak the language of Euro-American “democracy” fluently, and can make themselves heard as well as seen.

Will the state find a way to repress and then buy these urban denizens off, to bribe them back into their lives so as to calm the unrest while proceeding with the concentrations of power, wealth, and surveillance capacity apace? Or, will these actions snowball into something for which we still have no name? We will see.

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion on COVID-19. One of the speakers, an American biologist, delivered a scathing critique of his government’s pandemic response. The just assessment was nevertheless undermined when he praised China’s zero-COVID policy without reservation. The primary evidence he cited was the official death toll from the virus.

I was already squirming in my seat when the presenter dismissed the flood of first-person accounts from China on the draconian lockdowns and their immense human cost as merely “anecdotal,” amplified by anti-China propaganda. By the time he brought up the fatal crash in Guizhou, where a midnight quarantine bus toppled and claimed 27 lives, it took great physical effort for me to not storm out upon hearing that the calamity was a misfortune that “could have happened anywhere.” In search of an exit, I turned around and saw my Chinese-born colleague. Our eyes held each other in shared frustration. For anyone with loved ones in China, this year has been an unending stream of helpless worries. A part of my being, like millions of lives in my birth country, is held in dreadful suspense.

When people in cities across China at last took to the streets to refuse the ruthless restrictions, the demonstration was, quite literally, a prison break. I wonder if the biologist has been paying attention to the protests, or if he’s disregarded them as more “anecdotes,” possibly incited by nefarious foreign forces, as Chinese state media claims. U.S. exceptionalism and Cold War binary thinking are not the exclusive terrain of the right. On the other end of the political spectrum, many also mistake the U.S. as the only actor with agency, and construct a fictionalized other in the reverse image of the West to project their own grievances and desires. Some of the loneliest moments I’ve experienced as a Chinese immigrant in the U.S. were spent among self-branded leftwing circles. Those who should have been my comrades in imagining a world after capitalism instead cling to the delusion that a nominally communist party already has the answer. Their rightful skepticism of American power translates into an uncritical embrace of Beijing’s lies.

The popular discourse on COVID-19 is emblematic of this false dichotomy. For the world’s two superpowers, differing approaches to a common virus are cast through the lens of systemic rivalry. Either side has plenty of proof for the other’s failure. Neither dare admit the fallacy of their own ways or the possibility of another path. “Give me liberty or give me death” takes on the most cynical meaning. Yet beyond the self-serving narratives, both governments have prioritized power and deemed certain populations disposable; public health gives way to special interests. When the Chinese protesters chanted no to PCR testing that has become synonymous with dictatorial control, the freedom and safety they yearn for are not in a return to yesterday or an escape to elsewhere, but, as they sang in “The Internationale,” a better tomorrow is to be realized through collective struggle.

The anti-zero-COVID protests spreading across China are a remarkable departure from protests in China over the past three decades. Ever since the 1989 crackdown, most if not all protests have been restricted to local demands and have targeted local officials. Slogans like “Xi Jinping, step down!” “Communist Party, step down!” heard, echoed, and recorded in many protests in recent days represent extraordinary fearlessness.

This wave of protests has been brewing for some time. The Beijing “Bridge Man” lone protest right before the 20th Party Congress already inspired anonymous expressions of dissent on Western university campuses, presumably launched by young Chinese students. The treatment of Hu Jintao and the rise of a Xi-loyalist-only leadership at the Congress presaged a new era in which checks and balances and different opinions would disappear even among the highest elite. The strict zero-COVID policy at the expense of the economy suggests that leadership under Xi’s new term will no longer prioritize economic growth. Many have observed a sense of desperation among China’s youth at the apparent end of the era of reform and opening.

Over the past three decades, the stability of China’s status quo has been grounded on a pact between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the people (the urban middle class in particular) that the CCP could deliver constant improvement of the economy and material life so long as its authoritarian rule was not challenged. But over the past 10 years, the expansion of the unprofitable, monopolistic state sector at the expense of the dynamic private sector, the aggressive foreign policy posture that unnecessarily provokes China’s trading partners, and the crackdown on successful tech companies all point to the Party-state’s increasingly willingness to break that pact and sacrifice the economy for political control. Some already characterize these developments as the North Koreanization of China.

Zero-COVID lockdowns with no end in sight are the last straw on the camel’s back. The policy confirms the worst fear among the urban middle class and young people: that they are no longer beneficiaries but now victims of an increasingly totalitarian state. This wave of spontaneous protest represents a desperate attempt by young people to reverse or at least slow down this process. But it may be too late already. Across the world, autocratic regimes in Myanmar, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, among others, have managed to beat back the challenge of spontaneous protests. There is little reason to speculate that the Xi regime, which single-mindedly perfected the infrastructure of state control, surveillance, and repression over the last decade, will succumb to this wave of disorganized protest.

There is a chance that the protest will be persistent and fearless enough to engender elite revolt within China that changes the direction of history. But in the scenario where the regime digs in and the protests dissipate, the Xi regime will emerge stronger and more ruthless, until an inevitable succession crisis in the unknown future shakes it.

The demands voiced by demonstrators across the People’s Republic of China have evolved beyond outrage at the deaths in a fire in a sealed-off Urumchi apartment, and beyond even calls to lift zero-COVID lock-down policies. But since the horror of that event was the initial catalyst, we should not forget that we still don’t know critical things about what happened in that highrise in the largely Uyghur Jiaxiangyuan district of Urumchi.

Most discussion has focused on whether zero-COVID “seal and control” measures contributed to the deaths. But it remains unclear how many people died, or who they were. Although the Western press has largely followed the official Chinese announcement of 10 dead, nine injured in the fire, there is little reason to credit that official announcement, and good reason to be skeptical. The same officials also denied that doors and entryways in the apartment block were sealed, and blamed deaths on “weak self-rescue skills” of the victims. People across China—many with experience of sealed-off apartment buildings themselves—responded to these claims with derisive disbelief. Moreover, authorities in Urumchi already on November 25 detained a 24-year-old woman for posts on Weixin questioning the official casualty numbers. Thus one of the first official acts, even before the demonstrations took off, was a public threat designed to support the questionable official death toll.

Uyghur sources, who deserve more attention from Western press, have been talking to hospital workers and police in Urumchi, and from this are estimating dozens of deaths. The Uyghur Times believes 44 people perished.

Qemernisahan Abdurahman and four of her children died in the fire. In a statement, the World Uyghur Congress said that the children’s father, Eli Memetniyaz, and the couple’s older son, Eliyas Eli, are serving prison sentences of 12 and 10 years, respectively. For this family, the tragedy began before the fire, even before the zero-COVID lockdown. (We know details about this family because a nephew abroad was informed of their deaths by a neighbor.)

The generally cautious Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service uses “at least 10” in its lede but reports that RFA “called police stations near the site of the fire in Urumchi and was given varying death tolls from the blaze. ‘Nine burned to death. More than a dozen died of suffocation, with a total is around 26,’ said a police official at Ittipaq (In Chinese, Tuanjie) Road station.”

The death toll, then, should be reported as “at least 10 and potentially dozens of deaths.”

The connection to Xinjiang, where the lockdown has continued longer but with less attention than anywhere else, is one of the most extraordinary things about the current protests. They are taking place simultaneously in multiple Chinese cities, and participants include factory workers, university students, and city residents, thus comprising the kind of cross-society, nation-wide protest the Party fears. But they are also pan-ethnic, and that too is rare. It is telling that after the first night of Shanghai protests, authorities took down the Urumchi Road sign around which protesters had congregated. The Chinese Communist Party is attempting to erase “Urumchi” from Shanghai geography just as it has tried to erase so much Uyghur culture from Xinjiang. This is a symbolic connection that the authorities want to sever: Solidarity between Han and Uyghur is frightening for the Party.

In “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” published by ChinaFile on February 10, 2020, Xu Zhangrun predicted that Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic would be devastating for China socially and economically. He also thought that popular outrage at the government’s harsh policies and protest was inevitable. Below is an excerpt from the essay:

The ancients observed that “it’s easier to dam a river than it is to silence the voice of the people.” Regardless of how good they are at controlling the Internet, they can’t keep all 1.4 billion mouths in China shut. Yet again, our ancestors will be proved right. Nonetheless, since all of their calculations are solely made on the basis of maintaining control, they have convinced themselves that such crude exercises of power will suffice. They have been fooled by the self-deception of “The Leader,” but theirs is a confidence that deceives no one. Faced with this virus, the Leader has flailed about seeking answers with ever greater urgency, exhausting those who are working on the front line, spreading the threat to people throughout the land. Ever more vacuous slogans are chanted—Do this! Do that!—overweening and with prideful purpose, He garners nothing but derision and widespread mockery in the process. This is a stark demonstration of the kind of political depletion that I am addressing here. The last seven decades [of the People’s Republic] have taught the people repeated lessons about the hazards of totalitarian government. This time around, the coronavirus is proving the point once more, and in a most undeniable fashion.

One can only hope that our fellow Chinese, both young and old, will finally take these lessons to heart and abandon their long-practiced slavish acquiescence. It is high time that people relied on their own rational judgment and refused to sacrifice themselves again on the altar of the power holders. Otherwise, you will all be no better than fields of garlic chives; you will give yourselves up to being harvested by the blade of power, now as in the past. [Note: The term “garlic chives,” 韭菜 or Allium tuberosum, is used as a metaphor to describe the common people who are regarded by the power-holders as an endlessly renewable resource.]

. . . [As] a result of the endless political purges of recent years [carried out by Xi Jinping and his deputy Wang Qishan in the name of an “anti-corruption campaign”] and along with the revival of “Red Culture,” the people in the system who have now been promoted are in-house Party hacks who slavishly obey orders. Consequently, both the kind of professional commitment and expertise previously valued within the nation’s technocracy, along with the ambition people previously nurtured to seek promotion on the basis of their actual achievements, have been gradually undermined and, with no particular hue and cry, they have now all but disappeared. The One Who Must Be Obeyed who talks about the importance of transmitting “red genes” through a reliable Party body politic, the man with the ultimate decision-making power and sign-off authority, has created an environment in which the system as a whole has fallen into desuetude. What’s left is a widespread sense of hopelessness.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the protests that have taken place across China over the past few days—the character and size of which have not been seen in China since 1989—are the blank sheets of white paper demonstrators held aloft as they marched.

A sheet of A4 paper may be popular because it’s the easiest banner to come by, but it has become a symbol so powerful that people have now dubbed the protests the “A4 Revolution.”

The blankness says nothing, but everything is already there. People experiencing COVID-19 and Xi Jinping’s rule in China can easily read what is not written: anger, humiliation, sorrow, empathy, and the desire for freedom. Numerous aspects of life under recurring lockdowns connected in the sudden protests: intensified censorship, concentration camps, Xi’s life-long rule, corruption, economic stagnation, the death of the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, the 27 lives lost in Guizhou’s quarantine bus crash, and the lone warrior on Beijing’s Sitong bridge. Almost everyone in China has suffered under zero-COVID, and this collective suffering is the widespread and powerful psychological basis of the ongoing protests.

I coined the term “high-tech totalitarianism” to emphasize the effectiveness and pervasiveness of total control in China empowered by AI, big data, DNA collection, surveillance cameras, social credit, government-controlled social media, and health codes. Alongside them, censorship and brainwashing have become more aggressive and the crackdown on dissenting activities has become more brutal. All of these tactics increase the difficulty and risk that comes with resistance. However, the A4 Revolution has shattered people’s assumption that mass protests are unlikely, if even possible, under such unprecedented surveillance.

Abandoning the zero-COVID policy will on the one hand harm Xi Jinping’s legitimacy, and with it the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and on the other hand will motivate the protestors. When protests work, people organize more. But the unreasonable policy has and will immensely hurt China’s economy, which undergirds the CCP’s political stability. Xi will not easily give up the zero-COVID policy for another important reason: he and the Party elites have found the coronavirus provides a perfect pretext for putting everyone under stricter control.

How far and in what direction the protests in many parts of China will go depends not only on the courageous citizens in the streets, but also on those who are planning to act, those who are reporting and spreading the messages, and those who are hesitating to crack down on the freedom fighters. For sure, fear is waning, and dissatisfaction with Xi and the Party is accumulating. When the CCP’s “performance legitimacy” encounters trouble, so does its ability to rule by fear.

The speed and scale of the protests that have erupted across Chinese cities, towns, and universities surprised many observers. However, censorship trends from Chinese social media reveal that public frustration has been building for months.

Using proprietary data-scraping and analysis techniques of Chinese social media as well as open source manual research, DFRLab has found that some of the most heavily censored topics on Chinese social media deal with news of preventable deaths due to zero-COVID policies. Such incidents—including a September bus crash that killed 27 people en route to a quarantine facility, numerous stories of people dying from failure to receive medical treatment due to hospital quarantine protocols, and people taking their own lives out of sheer hopelessness—are especially sensitive.

At least among many Western observers, there was a sense that lockdowns would remain in place until the 20th Party Congress as a form of both social control and to ensure that no COVID outbreaks would overshadow the key messages and themes Xi wanted to relay at the Congress, with the expectation that restrictions would see possible minor to moderate shifts following. Indeed, immediately following the Congress, the State Council released measures easing some of the COVID restrictions, which were framed in part as efforts to “minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development.”

However, as COVID cases surged across the country, the Chinese government reverted back to strict lockdowns, rolling back the previous easing policy. Along with this, news of a fire in a locked-down building in Xinjiang’s capitol of Urumchi, in which at least 10 people were killed, pushed public frustrations over the limit and sparked this current wave of protests. People took to the streets to protest in cities across the country and in almost 80 universities in China, organizing despite the government’s heavy control over social media and the Internet. For example, groups organized through coded WeChat messages, shared images of protests via Apple air drop, and used VPNs to jump the Great Firewall to find footage of protests and to organize on encrypted apps like Telegram; the lockdown situation itself also facilitated protest organization—for example, it’s easy to join a crowd of protesting students streaming out of your locked-down dorm into the campus square as you see them filing past your doorway.

The sheer volume of protest material is a wave that overwhelmed China’s censorship machine in the initial days of the protest, with more protest footage going up, and staying up longer than usual, on heavily monitored platforms like WeChat and Douyin. It represents the tide of public frustration that has been building over the emotional whiplash caused by the ever-shifting goalposts of the zero-COVID strategy.

To this end, Xi is facing a Catch-22. The message of zero-COVID was that China was putting “people first” and preventing the millions of deaths that Western countries were facing from rampant COVID infections. Part of this message included that the Party, with Xi at the helm, was the only force capable of delivering the Chinese people to safety. As Xi considers his options, he will have to weigh which loss of legitimacy presents a more viable challenge to regime security.

There is no “White Paper Revolution” in China; there was only a White Paper Weekend that lasted from November 25 to 27, 2022.

Noting that the demonstrations have largely been over for a week does not disparage the bravery of the protestors, nor does it deny that anger over restrictions imposed on the Chinese people for the past three (and 10, and 73) years continues to simmer and spread. But the vigils in China have ended for now.

The weekend protests were easily squelched by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) security apparatus, but they are a harbinger of more unrest over the next five years. It appears that most Chinese still support Xi Jinping’s leadership. They are grateful for his anti-corruption campaign, China’s low COVID body-count, and its enhanced global status (which inspires respect and resentment in roughly equal measure).

But a liking for Xi doesn’t mean the Chinese people understand and approve of the direction in which he is taking the country. 40 years of development have made them more internationalized, informed, entrepreneurial, and ambitious. They proudly envision a world in which Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are mentioned in the same breath as London, Paris, Seoul, Tokyo, and New York. Instead, Xi has given them Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, Caracas, Havana.

China is unlikely to collapse and the Chinese people are unlikely to rebel in the wake of the White Paper protests. But they have been reminded of what it means not to be free and they understand that the CCP, and not a hostile West, is the source of their servitude. They also know it is getting worse. Xi’s COVID experience has convinced him that inwardness, authoritarianism, and surveillance work for China. He will not abandon those beliefs as the pandemic resides.

Now that more Chinese understand that they are repressed, they are likely to notice constraints they have always endured in ever more aspects of their daily lives. That doesn’t mean they will rise up to overthrow their government. It does mean internal pressure on Beijing to liberalize is likely to grow even as Xi tightens CCP control of Chinese society.

Over the next few years, foreign policymakers and corporations should expect a slow cascade of evidence that Xi Jinping and his people desire different things. Too many cats have been let out of too many bags onto slopes made slippery by too much un-tubed toothpaste for it to be otherwise.