China in Lockdown: Zero-COVID policy protests

Large protests in China occurred over last weekend after tensions boiled over from the government’s “zero-COVID” policy. The Associated Press referred to the demonstrations as “the most widespread protests since the army crushed the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.” To ease the spread of protests, Reuters reports that at least two Chinese cities – Guangzhou and Chongqing – will be easing its COVID-19 quarantine protocols.

Police forces were mobilized to quell zero-COVID policy protests, with Chinese security forces increasing surveillance and detaining an unknown number of individuals. Chinese universities also sent students home in attempts to limit the organizing of protests.

Unlike most countries, China has largely maintained early-pandemic levels of strict lockdowns according to data from Oxford University. 

This continuation of strict lockdowns resulted in protests twice this year — once in June after the two-month lockdown of Shanghai was lifted and again in September and October. The lockdown of Shanghai, a commercial hub of over 26 million residents, had major economic impacts that still haven’t subsided. Tensions were also high in the early fall as Xi Jinping broke tradition and began a third term as president.

The zero-COVID policy lockdowns have been effective in preventing covid deaths, as China’s death rate when adjusted for population is significantly lower than other G7 countries according to Johns Hopkins. However, the strict lockdowns have resulted in millions struggling with access to food and healthcare, loss of income, and undoubtedly feelings of stress and anxiety.

The flash point for the most recent protests was an apartment fire that claimed the lives of at least 10 people in Urumqi, the capital of the western Xinjiang region. Protestors believe restrictions not only hindered residents from escaping the burning building, but also impacted rescue efforts by first responders.

While most protestors focused on the covid restrictions, some took to the streets demanding the resignation of President Xi. In objectively odd timing, Xi now has to navigate these protests in wake of Jiang Zemin’s death — who led China following the Tiananmen Square protests. 

The anti-lockdown protests have also been testing the limits of China’s online censorship. Videos continue to circle on WeChat — with an estimated 1.2 billion users — as well as on video sharing apps like Douyin. Users have reuploaded removed videos, flipped or added filters to them, and recorded videos of the videos to circumvent algorithms meant to flag and remove content. Beyond that, just the sheer number of videos being uploaded and shared are simply overwhelming China’s censorship efforts. 

The removal of such messages and videos online have led protestors to hold blank sheets of white paper — representing the government’s wiping of news articles and social media posts online. A document leaked on Chinese social media from one of the largest retailers in China, M&G Stationery. The document announced M&G Stationery would cease the sale of A4 white paper instore and online, saying it would “prevent outlaws from hoarding a large amount of A4 white paper and using it for illegal subversive activities.” The document also mentioned the ban would “maintain national security and stability” and that the company “strongly condemns the recent ‘white paper movement.’”

What the recent protests haven’t seen is the usage of Apple’s AirDrop feature, which was used heavily during protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and later in mainland China. Apple exclusively updated AirDrop in China earlier in November to limit the “Everyone” setting to just 10 minutes. While Apple did mention the update to AirDrop would be rolled out globally “in the coming year,” the timing of the update in China is certainly odd and the American company has appeased the Chinese government in the past. Apple removed VPN apps — virtual private networks —  in 2017 that could bypass China’s infamous internet firewall and in 2019 hid the Taiwanese flag emoji on iPhones in Hong Kong and Macau.

George Ftikas Jr.

A graduate from the University of Washington Tacoma with a degree in communications and a minor in business. I hunger for new pieces of digital media: video games, animation, movies, comics, and television. Digital media creates the unique opportunity for interactive communities.

George Ftikas Jr. has 43 posts and counting. See all posts by George Ftikas Jr.

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