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China: Policy anger continues after protests dwindle

China: Policy anger continues after protests dwindle

China: Policy anger continues after protests dwindle

China: Policy anger continues after protests dwindle

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  • A young woman began chanting as Bill stood with a group of 20-somethings.
  • “Freedom or death!” she said.
  • Others repeated her chant and raised blank paper.
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A young woman began chanting as Bill stood with a group of 20-somethings. “Freedom or death!” she said, her voice cracking.

Others repeated her chant and raised blank paper, a symbol of China’s recent protests.

Bill, a 24-year-old Ph.D. student in Chengdu, requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Hearing these words chanted in China makes me feel like I’ve never been alone.

“If we’re all this brave, this country has hope,” he said.

In a rare nationwide display of defiance, protests calling for an end to China’s zero-COVID policy erupted over the weekend in several major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, and on university campuses, creating one of the biggest political challenges to the government since the unrest in Hong Kong in 2019.

Ten people died in a fire in a high-rise apartment building in Urumqi, Xinjiang, last Friday. Protesters blame the fatalities on the government’s zero-COVID regulations. Videos shared online showed that coronavirus-related obstacles in front of the neighborhood complex hindered firemen’s entry to the structure.

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Anger rarely witnessed in China’s carefully regulated society flooded social media. People demanded justice for the victims and that the government drops zero-COVID on Weibo and WeChat, two of China’s major social media platforms.

Shanghai-based freelance journalist Su said WeChat seemed like a war that night. Someone posts something sensitive almost every minute.

Expectedly, censors deleted posts. The Urumqi fire dragged down Weibo’s hot list, but the sheer volume of online conversation surprised many platforms as many posts continued to circulate.

Protests are common in China, however, they usually occur in small spaces and focus on labor, property, and financial issues. The national fury and one reason for outrage are unusual.

College students launched a pro-democracy campaign across China in 1989. This movement concluded with a terrible massacre in Tiananmen Square, halting practically all following protests.

“If you’ve followed Chinese politics long enough, you have to question if anti-lockdown protests are nearing the point where a top-down nationwide crackdown is inevitable,” a Yale Law School professor commented on social media.

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While the Urumqi fire sparked the protests, President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID made some of them more political.

In Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi, protesters said unthinkable things. One shouted “Communist Party.” The gang said, “Step down.” Another said, “Xi Jinping.” Demonstrators chanted, “Step down.”

Sunday night in Beijing, hundreds of people gathered to demand press freedom.

In Chengdu, people yelled “China doesn’t need an emperor,” referring to Xi’s third term and the elimination of term limits. In Guangzhou, crowds sang “forgive me for my life’s unfettered pleasure and desire for freedom.”

One online video showed a young man standing still in front of a moving police car to pay honor to the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, who stood in front of tanks rolling into the Square before the 1989 massacre.

More than 30 years later, the young man was shoved down and apprehended by police, along with two others.

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Despite arrests, anger continued. “If I don’t speak up due to fear of the regime, I think our people would be disappointed,” a student stated at the Chinese president’s alma mater. “I’ll regret this as a Tsinghua student forever.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid of our government, and even our national anthem told us to rise up in times of hardship,” a 36-year-old Chinese army veteran remarked.

“I was injured as a soldier, but I don’t regret it because I’m a Chinese citizen and I believe we all have the right to stand up,” he said.

Lockdowns were lifted in most of Urumqi, and a plan to build a huge quarantine center in Chengdu was postponed overnight. Other cities have modified mass testing.

Tuesday, the administration declared it will speed up elderly vaccinations.

But security has responded quickly.

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Longtime China-watcher Bill Bishop said in his Sinocism blog that “political security” is “job number one” for the country’s leadership and security agencies.

In the early hours of the protests, state media mainly ignored them, occasionally blaming “foreign forces.”

As protests grew, arrests occurred.

Police presence was boosted in most significant cities, and the government began identifying demonstrators using GPS and phone services. The Communist Party’s top security council called for a “crackdown” Tuesday.

Al Jazeera’s sources said they, too, experienced random phone searches. Online blogs said police were searching for forbidden apps like Telegram and Twitter and phone messages for words like “demonstrations” and “protests.”

Defiant protestors exist.

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Su from Shanghai remarked, “We’ll fight until we can’t, and we don’t know when or how.”

Most similar movements in practically all countries fade away, observers say.

“Having exploded spontaneously in a short period, they will fade away without any climax or denouement,” a Cambridge professor and China expert tweeted.

Second, broad and decisive repression. This might be a concerted and violent crackdown (like in 1989) or slowly and less bloody (as in Hong Kong in 2019-2020),” he said.

Observers are unconvinced that the zero-Covid policy will alter systemically, let alone politically.

Lockdowns, mass testing, quarantine, and tracking are the country’s COVID-19 response tactics three years after the first cases were found in Wuhan.

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The government argues such steps are necessary since elderly people are less likely to be vaccinated.

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