Dozens of protests broke out across China in late November this year, manifesting public anger — particularly among youth — with the country’s highly restrictive COVID-19 policies, known collectively as the “zero-COVID strategy.” The dogged pursuit of the virus’s eradication in China has led to extreme, indefinite lockdowns of citizens and laid a heavy burden on the economy. Outrage with policies seemed to have reached a boiling point for many after a Nov. 24 apartment fire in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang autonomous region, killed 10, including a three-year-old child, and injured nine.
As it became clear that the city’s poor response to the fire — it was not extinguished for three and a half hours — was caused in part by aggressive COVID measures including quarantine fences and bollards that prevented fire engines from reaching the building, many in China began to see the fires as a manifestation of the broader injustices of heavy-handed and unaccountable public policy.
Protests have represented a variety of grievances and outrage in China, but young people seem particularly driven to protest. One stirring incident in Shanghai saw a crowd chanting “xiatai!” — “step down!” or “down with!” — as a steady rhythm, interjected with names including President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party itself. Other protests have voiced more measured demands, but what has become most iconic has been young people’s protest of their inability to protest – mocking widespread censorship by demonstrating in the streets with sheets of blank paper representing their voicelessness. Others have distributed satirical essays online, parodying the meaningless positivity of the only political commentary permitted on China’s highly censored net by posting articles consisting only of one word: “hao [‘good,’] shi [‘yes,’] xing [‘OK,’] or dui [‘correct,’]” over and over for pages. When even essays consistently containing only the word for “good” were taken down by censors, some turned to publishing articles saying “neither good nor bad” to test the absurdity of the social media policies, as highlighted in reporting by the China Digital Time’s Alexander Boyd.
Western pundits tend to sloppily turn towards analogies toward the 1989 Tiananmen protests whenever public outrage produces a political movement in China, but it’s important to understand that the range of outcomes for a protest movement in China is much more nuanced than a binary between a state-crackdown massacre and the fall of the Communist party. Protest frequency and intensity is already down from its apex in late November, and multiple signs across China point towards a real government push towards a reopening — even though Beijing will never admit it is governing in response to protestors.
Still, for many Chinese people, particularly those in their teens, twenties, and early thirties who grew up in the shadow of Tiananmen, this season’s protests and the zero-COVID experience have been a politically formative time, demonstrating the real coercive hand of the Chinese state and just how far limits on free expression can go. As Financial Times reporter Yuan Yang has noted, censorship and localized governance ordinarily serve to prevent the creation of nationwide political consciousness — but nationwide lockdowns have created similar experiences and grievances, even if the public is not free to discuss them. The neologism “zhengzhi chugui” — “politically coming-out-of-the-closet” has spread across WeChat as a way for young people to describe this formative time, as they realize their own frustrations with the government. Regardless of the future of this particular protest movement, 2022 will likely stand the test of time as an inflection point in the political consciousness of China’s younger generations.
John Emmons is from Seattle, Wash.
His majors are Chinese and political science.