Many Chinese cities have been experiencing widespread protests for several days, from residents fed up with lockdowns in far western China to students at prestigious universities in Beijing. Nearly three years into the pandemic, protesters from different walks of life have been pushed to the brink, amidst strict covid controls that have hurt livelihoods and stifled the economy. It has been one of the largest nationwide demonstrations in decades that has happened in China which has created a political dilemma for Xi Jinping’s leadership.
By Sourabh Shetty
The anger was sparked by a deadly apartment fire on 24th Novembers night in the far western city of Urumqi capital city of China’s Xinjiang province which killed 10, Including a 3-Year-Old child, which brought Chinese citizens to the street calling for an end to the lockdown. According to local authorities, the deadly fire was caused by a faulty power strip that caught fire on the 15th floor of the High rise apartment, but it took the fire department over three hours to put out the flames.
Later on Friday 25th November, videos emerged of hundreds of Urumqi citizens pushing through the lockdown around their residential compounds and marching towards the local government, demanding an end to the lockdown. Several social media posts showed crowds, wrapping themselves in Patriotism as protection, marching through the frigid night alternatively singing the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, and the socialist hymn “The Internationale”.
The shocking news of the Urumqi apartment fire has set off the most serious political protest in china since 1989 Tiananmen Square, protest has been rapidly growing in numbers across many cities in china which includes the Tsinghua university where Xi himself studied. People are coming out on the streets by thousands in numbers by holding up a blank sheet of paper, symbolizing censorship, and braving arrest as they chant unimaginable slogans such as “Step down, Xi Jinping Step down, communist party” and “We don’t want dictatorship, we want democracy”.
Hundreds took to the streets in Beijing and Shanghai on 26th November. In Beijing, protestors held a vigil for the victims and protested against covid restrictions, with people waving a white paper as a symbol of censorship. Shanghai saw a similar protest where a large number of protestors were gathered on Wulumuqi Street which is named after Urumqi, here protestors held sheets of white paper and flowers during the silent protests. Away from Beijing and Shanghai, in Zhengzhou protestors took to the streets expressing their anger on Covid restrictions. There were violent clashes in the world’s largest iPhone factory, where more than 200,000 workers had been under lockdown since October. Hundreds of workers marched over the enforced lockdown. Even Wuhan saw a similar kind of protest where people pushed down a fence that had been erected as part of the covid measure.
Draconian Zero-Covid Policy
China’s strategy of controlling Covid-19 with lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines has provoked the fury of protest across the country against the ruling communist party for decades. Initially, China succeeded in suppressing the virus, but when more transmissible variants emerged, in recent weeks the outbreak has grown with a record number of cases reported.
3 years into the pandemic, China is the only major country which is still trying to stop transmission entirely. At the end of the first wave, the Chinese CDC (Centers for Disease control and prevention) advocated for a zero-covid strategy. Its zero-covid approach was two-pronged which focuses on prevention and containment. Due to this some the cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Sanya, and Dalian carried out mandatory covid testing on millions of residents. To carry out their lives outside citizens compulsorily wanted to maintain a normal covid profile with regular negative tests. Even policy has restricted access to neighbourhoods and even entire cities for weeks at a time. Travel to and from China has also been extremely limited since March 2020 when the pandemic began.
Initially, China’s zero covid policy was extremely successful it sustained extremely low levels of infection in comparison to other countries like the United States or the United Kingdom in handling the Covid 19 outbreaks, which convinced its central leaders that it’s not just a success of zero-Covid Strategy but it can use in showcasing the superiority of political system so in a way projection of china’s soft power.
But in March 2022, China faced a major outbreak in its largest city Shanghai, A financial hub with a population of more than 26 million people. Where the covid 19 cases skyrocketed which locked down the city in April 2022. Shanghai’s outbreak was the biggest since Wuhan 2020. The city reported thousands of new Covid cases daily. The city was shut for four months which crimped economic activity and prompted public anger over the personal repercussions of such extreme measures. The residents of Shanghai complained about dwelling food and medical resources and fears of separation from their loved ones.
Even China’s Capital Beijing went through a similar kind of lockdown in April 2022, millions of residents of Beijing underwent mass Covid 19 testing. The stringent measures disrupted industrial activity and frustrated the residents.
Multiple outbreaks of the omicron variant of covid 19 in 2022 have destroyed China’s growth. The economic growth of China was projected to slow down to 4.3 Percent in 2022 before rebounding to 5.2 percent in 2023, the economy was severely damaged by strict lockdown policies. According to official data released by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the country’s industrial growth, which measures activity in manufacturing, mining, and utility sectors, fell to a negative 2.9 percent in April 2022 from 5 percent in March 2022. China’s consumer spending as retail sales in April 2022 decreased 11.1 percent year on year. The Job market suffered as the unemployment rate climbed to 6.1 percent in April 2022 from 5.8 percent in March 2022, the highest level since February 2020. The unemployment rate among young adults aged 16-24 reached an alarming 18.2% in April 2022.
Why did it fail?
China’s zero-covid policy didn’t provide an acceptable trade-off, sacrificing the economy to protect public health. Instead, it leaves China dangerously vulnerable to infection, especially among the elderly. An estimated 100 million Chinese above 60 have not received more than one dose. Distrust and vaccine hesitation within this population remained high. While the remaining 90 percent of the population had two doses, booster rates remain stubbornly low. The Chinese vaccines offer significantly lower protection compared to western mRNA and other Vaccines, and the immunity they do confer wanes rapidly. WHO did recommend that those who have received inactivated vaccines, which is the most widespread in China, should receive booster shots to protect against the waning immunity.
Enforcement of the Zero-covid policy, in absence of targeted and sufficient vaccination and boosting of the elderly and others, created a higher, not lower danger for vulnerable populations. President Xi Jinping succeeded in getting elected for 3rd five-year term but he failed to control the covid spread. His government has not turned to the one thing which might end the crisis. While his government prepared to enforce strict compliance in all other areas of covid policy, it has not bothered to push vaccination as enthusiastically.
The recent protests in several cities are the result of the months of frustration and fear that has now boiled over. For a country that spends more on domestic security than its military, the government is still favouring enforcing its zero covid policies. But as anger spreads, the Chinese public has shown that they are not on the side of the government.
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