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People are pouring into the streets in China to protest COVID lockdowns. It's a rare moment of mass dissent, and experts say it's a demonstration to Xi — and the world.

Business Insider India logo Business Insider India 28-11-2022 Cheryl Teh,Lina Batarags
People are pouring into the streets in China to protest COVID lockdowns. It's a rare moment of mass dissent, and experts say it's a demonstration to Xi — and the world. © HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images People are pouring into the streets in China to protest COVID lockdowns. It's a rare moment of mass dissent, and experts say it's a demonstration to Xi — and the world.
  • People are pouring into the streets of major Chinese cities to protest COVID lockdowns.
  • Anger has been simmering for months over China's zero-COVID rules.

It was a sight previously unseen in Xi Jinping's China.

Over the weekend, students gathered on university campuses in protest. In the streets of Beijing, people shouted, "No to COVID tests, yes to freedom." Some even demanded Xi and the Communist Party relinquish control. Crowds of people lifted white, unmarked pieces of paper above their heads, protesting against the zero-COVID policies that have defined so much of everyday life in China for the past three years.

All the while, the protests were routinely and predictably suppressed by China's censorship machine, with hashtags related to the unrest wiped clean from Weibo, the country's Twitter-like platform.

The protests against the Chinese government mark the country's biggest protest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, when Chinese troops killed hundreds of unarmed civilians protesting in the center of Beijing.

This year's protests were a long time coming, said Perry Link, a professor emeritus at Princeton's department of East Asian studies. Link told Insider problems have been festering in China since the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong, particularly during years of turmoil in the country from 1957 to 1976.

"Malaise is endemic, but to protest has always been dangerous," Link said. "When protests appear, these spread because people have pent-up frustrations."

How did China get here?

© NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Three years into the pandemic, most of China remains under strict COVID-19 lockdowns. The lockdowns have hit small cities and major financial hubs like Shanghai and Guangzhou alike, sometimes stretching months long. At times, people have been locked inside their apartments, factories, and office buildings. In Shanghai, metal barriers were installed around homes to keep residents from going into the city, forcibly fencing people in for weeks.

In August, Shanghai residents were seen pouring out of an Ikea and trying to escape the building after the store announced it was locking down because of one COVID-19 case. Shanghai's Disneyland locked down abruptly in October, trapping visitors inside the park for hours after COVID cases were detected.

Anger over the lockdowns reached a crescendo in November. Online footage appeared to show workers rioting at Foxconn's iPhone City in Zhengzhou after weeks of protests and reports of a food shortage in the plant, which makes the majority of the world's iPhones.

Another tipping point came after at least 10 people died in an apartment fire on November 24. Locals said the people who died were in a building that had been blockaded off because of the area's COVID lockdown measures. Angered by the tragedy, people have poured into the streets in China and beyond to protest the injustice, the loss of life, and the ongoing COVID lockdowns.

All of these incidents also come on the back of growing discontent in the country over the past two years, particularly among youths. This summer, the phrase "last generation" took off in China, with young adults using the now-censored hashtag to talk about their disillusionment with life and to criticize the government's zero-COVID strategy.

The protests are smaller in scale than Tiananmen — but they're spreading all over China

© HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

While the protests have been China's largest and most organized protests since Tiananmen Square, some experts have been quick to point out differences between the two.

"Millions of people were protesting in every major Chinese city for a solid two months in 1989," Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia political risk research and consulting firm, wrote on Twitter.

"What we're seeing this weekend is a big deal for Xi Jinping but a far cry from Tiananmen," Bremmer continued.

"The sizes of the street crowds in Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong in 2019 were much larger," Link told Insider, referencing the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, where millions in the city rallied against the Chinese government and clashed violently with the police.

Link, however, pointed out one similarity between the Tiananmen protests and the ongoing unrest in China: Just like in 1989, this week's protests are spreading to major cities all around China.

Chong Ja Ian, a professor at the National University of Singapore's political science department, told Insider that protests in China are fairly common, but that they're usually focused on local issues such as withheld pay or labor conditions.

"These anti-COVID zero protests seem to be taking their cue from each other, but do not seem as organized as the Tiananmen protests, much less the Hong Kong protests," Chong said.

Ramifications that could echo across the rest of the world

Chong said authorities in China seem to be pushing a narrative that the protests are a form of coordinated and organized "mischief."

"The CCP usually lets the protests run for a little so protesters wear themselves out, then move in to arrest leaders while dispersing the crowd and arresting some people on the spot," Chong said.

The Chinese government's reaction might depend on how widespread these protests end up being, how long they last, and how organized they become.

"Cracking down demands resources too. These protests are certainly a challenge to Xi in that he has decided to own the COVID-zero policies. That makes these protests more high-stakes than other localized protests that China tends to see," Chong said.

"This means that maintaining control and the narrative of success is all the more important," Chong added.

© Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Chong also said the protests are a demonstration to the world — that for all of Xi's control over China, and the Chinese government's vast resources, the government is not infallible. The protests show, Chong added, that Xi's Communist Party "can make serious miscalculations and face problems internally."

Link, the Princeton professor, said the protesters in China may face serious ramifications. Some of these consequences, Link added, might impact the rest of the world.

Xi will repress the protests as thoroughly as he possibly can, Link said: "This will be done mostly by detaining demonstrators, pressing them to reveal who their colleagues and leaders are, and threatening people with punishments if they persist."

He added that some protesters will likely be accused of crimes and jailed — perhaps on groundless charges including "collusion with hostile foreign forces."

"There have already been protests in San Francisco, London, Paris, Taipei, and elsewhere," Link added. "One danger to the world is that Xi Jinping might stir up a foreign confrontation to distract attention and try to pull Chinese nationalism to his side."

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