Weeks after nationwide protests against the zero COVID policy, participants and policymakers in China are still trying to figure out exactly what happened. Before November 26, 2022, the prospect of a broad protest movement in China against a central government policy was almost unthinkable. Yet, waves of protests across cities like Urumqi, Beijing, Shanghai, and Wuhan and across more than 100 Chinese universities, provoked by a deadly fire incident in Xinjiang and symbolized by the holding of blank white papers, sent a strong message of “enough is enough” to the government. The protests reflected the public fatigue and outrage against the stringent COVID-19 policy that has restricted the movements of people in the past three years.
China’s government quickly rolled out relaxed rules on lockdowns and travels, highlighted by reports on Vice Premier Sun Chunlan’s meeting with health experts and President Xi Jinping’s remarks to visiting European officials. The change appeared to demonstrate that the government felt pressure to respond to the unprecedented protests. Yet the prevailing feeling, strangely enough, is neither a celebratory mood extolling the social movement and the space it opened up, nor a sentiment of fear worrying about further crackdowns and tighter controls the regime can impose. Instead, the public is largely in a state of puzzlement: What does this movement mean? How did it happen? And is it over?
Confusion and disorientation are expressed not only among bystanders, but also by protesters and government officials. The movement raised more questions than answers. A closer examination might help us understand the unexpectedness of this large-scale protest movement in China and its implications.
First of all, it would be wrong to take the outburst and to some degree success of the movement as evidence for the government’s waning coercive and surveillance capacity. The armed police arrived on the scene in Urumqi instantly after crowds appeared on the street, a much more rapid response compared to the 2009 Urumqi unrest. In other cities, police arrived earlier than the protesters, patrolling around street junctures and ordering pedestrians to stay away. In Beijing and Shanghai, police traced the protesters by extracting records of taxi rides and mandatory health code scans in the area and tracking the use of censored social media phone apps. In most cases, the police visited the protesters’ residence and gave verbal admonishments.
If the protests did not catch the authorities by surprise, and the police were prepared and capable of tracking down the protesters, why was the movement not repressed in the first place, and why the protesters not face graver consequences? After all, over the past three years outspoken critics of the COVID-19 policy were detained or forced to disappear. The sheer number of protesters this time was probably one factor. Due to the widespread lockdowns all over the country, the police force and their family members were equally impacted by the restrictions and the general condition of austerity.
A more important factor for the restrained response was that the protests touched upon the very delicate local-central government relationship in China. It was an opportunity for the central government to distance itself from the unpopular measures implemented by local authorities and blame them as deviances from original policy purpose. As a nationwide movement, the incident required a unified response from the central government and thus an official judgement on the protests. Repressive responses, especially the mobilization of armed forces, would need a formal justification. Yet so far the government has seemed to hesitant, having difficulty with that judgement. The popular term for the protests – “White Paper Revolution” or “White Paper Movement” – was neither accepted by the government nor unanimously endorsed by the protesters. The news report citing a meeting memo from the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission on the fight against the “infiltration of enemy forces” was soon withdrawn and underplayed in the Chinese media.
These contested judgments reflected the nature of the protest: It was highly fragmented and divided. While the initial protests were born out of shared dissatisfaction against the COVID-19 policy, people on the street soon found themselves going into different directions, ideologically and physically. Protesters in Urumqi were local citizens whose outrage targeted the months-long lockdown and government’s handling of the fire incident. In Beijing, residents in cordoned communities broke through gates, citing laws and governmental decrees as the basis of their action. Protesters in Shanghai gathered in the road named after Urumqi, and turned the mourning event into a political moment by asking for Chinese leaders and the ruling party to step down.
In Wuhan, two protests happened at the same time. One was attended by small-business owners and vendors whose livelihood was on the edge of breakdown; this protest featured protesters knocking down fences along the road and saw physical confrontations with the police. The other protest took place in a gentrified district, where young people gathered with candles and craft beers.
There was no unified slogan across the nationwide protests. There was no pre-established team to organize or coordinate, except for ad hoc groups on the message apps Telegram and WhatsApp. Participants expressed little interest in becoming leaders and followed the tacit consensus not to ask for more details about poster-makers to ensure their personal safety.
Participants who only wanted to focus on the Urumqi fire were named “fundamentalist mourners” by protesters demanding the cancelling of health code scans and COVID-19 tests. When shouted slogans turned into political demands, reactions became mixed: some followed, some clapped, some stayed silent, and others called for a stop. Interestingly, the protesters who were in the most violent and bodily confrontation with the police in Wuhan saw the political slogans in Shanghai as “going too far.”
This was a polyphonic movement blended with various demands and interests, making it difficult to tell where it was going next.
Nonetheless, the movement has revealed long-standing misinterpretations about Chinese politics. The censorship and information control, once thought as seamless, were in fact porous. The popular slogan “We don’t want lockdowns but freedom” in the movement was a partial inheritance from the one-man protest on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge in October. Information on the October protest was completely erased from the mainland’s social media, but it resurfaced during the protest movement. Memories of history also seemed to defy decades of propaganda and censorship, as the term “33 years,” referring to the 1989 Tiananmen protest, was used by protesters and bystanders to underline a sense of historical legacy and linkage.
Meanwhile, protesters made pre-emptive counterarguments before the authorities used the old argument associating public dissent with foreign intervention. People questioned the presence of “hostile foreign forces” after three years of strict border control, and voices calling for a “neutral and rational stance” attracted nothing but mockery and sarcasm. In short, the authority’s ideological methods used to suppress dissents in the past are losing their effectiveness.
Most crucially, the movement showed a different image of the youth and public in China. It shook the belief that the younger generation were either depoliticized subjects or narrow-minded nationalists. “Now, there is hope again” was a general response from society, which was impressed by the creativity and courage of young protesters. The older generation of civic journalists and lawyers called for media and legal support to safeguard the youth.
The public was not indifferent to or unaware of what was happening. They were mobilized to challenge the rationale of lockdowns and struggled for the right to free movement, usually starting from their neighborhood. The public formed their own judgements on the protests independent from that of the government. One restaurant owner in Wuhan, who was hosting her first rounds of dine-in guests, put it plainly: “Of course, we are grateful to the protesters, without them, you will not be sit in here and we will not be able to open.”
The puzzlement around the eruption of a protest movement in China originated from a misplaced understanding of its agents. The movement was solid proof that there exists a politically active and pluralist community, working in the vacuums in the power structure and enlarging them into a momentary space of defiance. They were not protesting in the form of strikes, using the suspension of work to pressure the authorities. Instead, they were protesting for the right to return to a normal state of work, playing with the official language on China’s rejuvenation and recovery. This was different from the strikes commonly seen as an expression of public dissent in other countries, yet their aim was similar: to strive for the right to a better life.
The protesters were emotionally unified but politically fragmented, as their frames of a better life adopted varying definitions. Paradoxically, it was the ambiguity of this movement, which used to be seen as a sign of political weakness, that gave life to its activism. The authorities could not decide on a clear judgement and action against such a decentralized movement. In the space of that hesitation, the public turned the once unthinkable to the art of possible.
Regardless of its immediate outcome, the movement has already changed the scene: It changed how we see and imagine China’s political future.