Bill was standing with a group of people mostly in their 20s when a young woman started chanting. “Give me freedom, or give me death,” she shouted, her voice cracking at times.
Others followed her lead, repeating songs and holding up blank sheets of paper, a defining symbol of the latest wave of protests in China.
“I was in tears,” said Bill, a 24-year-old graduate student in Chengdu who, like everyone else interviewed for this story, said: “I was in tears,” said Bill, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being reprimanded. revenge. “Hearing these people chant these words, everywhere in China, makes me feel like I’m never alone.”
“If we can all be that brave, there’s still hope in this country,” he added.
In a rare show of defiance across the country, protests calling for an end to China’s harsh COVID-19 policy broke out over the weekend in several major cities, including Shanghai. and Beijing, as well as on the campuses of dozens of universities, create one of the biggest political challenges facing the government since unrest in Hong Kong in 2019.
The protests began after a fire at a high-rise apartment building in Xinjiang’s Urumqi last Friday left at least 10 people dead; Protesters blamed the deaths on the government’s strict measures related to the government’s COVID-free policy. Videos posted online show barricades erected in front of a residential area that, as part of the city’s lengthy coronavirus lockdown, have impeded firefighters’ access to the building.
Outbursts of anger, at a level rarely seen in China’s tightly controlled society, have pervaded Chinese social media. Post after post on Weibo and WeChat, two of China’s largest social media platforms, people demanded justice for the victims and demanded that the government remove COVID-19, the The disease has slowed economies and upended the lives of millions.
“WeChat was like a fight that night,” Su, a freelance writer in Shanghai, wrote on the platform. “Almost every minute, someone writes or retweets something that is generally considered too sensitive to share.”
The censors, as expected, scrambled to delete posts. For example, trending topics related to the Urumqi fire were pulled down Weibo’s trending list, but the high volume of discussion taking place online took many platforms by surprise and many posts continued to go viral. transmission.
Protests are not uncommon in China, but they mostly occur in confined spaces and focus on well-defined economic issues such as labor, property and financial issues. What’s unusual this time is the nature of nationwide anger and the single, pervasive cause of outrage.
The most recent nationwide political protests were in 1989 when university students led a pro-democracy movement that spread across China. That movement ended with a bloody massacre in Tiananmen Squareprevented nearly all grassroots protests that followed.
“If you follow Chinese politics long enough, you have to wonder if anti-lockdown protests are approaching the point where severe top-down nationwide repression becomes almost inevitable. or not,” Taisu Zhang, a professor at Yale Law School, wrote on social media.
While the fire in Urumqi was the catalyst for the protesters, in some places the protests were more political. zero-COVID, an important initiative of President Xi Jinping.
At Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, named after the city of Urumqi, protesters began uttering words that were previously unthinkable. “Communist Party,” one shouted. “Step down,” answered the rest of the group. “Xi Jinping,” another called. “Step down,” the bold protesters shouted back.
In Beijing, hundreds of people gathered on Sunday night, calling for a free press, among other demands.
In Chengdu, crowds chanted “China doesn’t need an emperor,” referring to Xi’s third term and the removal of a constitutional limit to a presidency. In Guangzhou, the crowd sang Beyond’s iconic Cantonese song “forgive me for my loose life and love of freedom”.
An online video shows a young man standing still in front of a moving police vehicle in an apparent attempt to pay his respects to Tiananmen Square’s famous Tank Man, who was in front A line of tanks entered the Square at the forefront of the bloody crackdown in 1989.
More than 30 years later, the young man was soon knocked over and arrested by the police along with two other people who had joined him in front of the car.
The anger continues despite the arrests. “If I don’t speak up out of fear of the regime, I think our people will be disappointed,” said one student during a protest at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the alma mater of the Chinese president. “As a Tsinghua student, I will regret this for the rest of my life.”
“We should not be afraid of our government, and even our national anthem asks us to stand up in difficult times,” said a 36-year-old veteran from the Chinese military, referring to the anthem. China starts with this line. : “Arise, you who do not want to be slaves.”
“I suffered many injuries as a soldier, but I have no regrets because I am a Chinese citizen and I believe we all have the right to stand up as Chinese citizens,” he continued. customary.
On the surface, the government has responded in a few positive ways to the wave of anger: lockdowns have been lifted in most parts of Urumqi, while the project has built a giant quarantine center in Chengdu was halted overnight. Other cities also have adjust their approach for batch testing.
The government also announced on Tuesday it will promote vaccination for the elderly.
But the security response has also been swift.
“The government has a plan to deal with these kinds of events and has been hardening the system for years just because of these kinds of threats,” wrote Bill Bishop, a longtime China watcher. His Chineseism, notes that “political security” is the “number one task” for the country’s security and leadership institutions.
In the early hours of the protests, state media barely covered it, with occasional mentions of “foreign forces,” the government’s usual scapegoat.
But as the protests began to boil, arrests began.
The police presence has increased in most major cities and — taking advantage of the mass surveillance system built up over the years — the government is beginning to identify protesters using GPS and electricity services. phone. On Tuesday, the Communist Party’s top security agency called for a meeting “suppression” of “hostile forces”.
Multiple sources told Al Jazeera that they also had random phone searches. Online posts claim that police are preventing people from searching for apps banned in China, including Telegram and Twitter, and exchanging texts if there are mentions of words like “protest” or “reaction” opposite to”.
The question now is where this wave of protests will go.
Some protesters are defiant.
“We will keep fighting until we can’t fight anymore, and we don’t know when or how that day will come,” said Su from Shanghai.
But analysts say they are more likely to die out, as most such movements happen in most countries.
William Hurst, a professor at the University of Cambridge and an expert on China, wrote an analysis of the events on Twitter: “Striking out spontaneously in a short time, they will disappear without reaching the mark. to any climax or end point.
“The second possibility is some form of complete and definitive repression. This could take the form of a coordinated and possibly quite violent crackdown (as in 1989), or it could be slower and at least a little less bloody (as in Hong Kong). Kong in 2019-2020),” he continued.
Beyond the changes that have taken place so far, observers are skeptical that there will be systemic changes to the Covid-free policy, let alone any political changes.
Three years since the first coronavirus cases were detected in downtown Wuhan, blockade, mass testing, isolation and tracing remain key tools in the response to COVID-19 of the country.
The government says such measures are still needed because of relatively low vaccination rates among the elderly, who are more susceptible.
China has reported a record high number of infections over the past few days, with a slight decrease reported on Tuesday.
China’s vaccination campaign is a puzzle to many.
While it won’t take long to vaccinate the population after the initial harsh shutdown in early 2020, the government has failed to provide enough vaccine for a large population of elderly and immunocompromised populations. Translate.
There are also questions about effectiveness of Chinese-made vaccinesespecially against variants like Omicron, which are currently sweeping across the country.
The worry is that once the policy is eased, the health system will not be able to cope and the number of deaths will increase dramatically.
But many young people have had enough of those arguments and the seemingly endless disruption to their lives.
Max, a 23-year-old resident of Dali, Yunnan province, said: “It is only a matter of time before each of us is affected by this series of stupid anti-pandemic measures.
“We were all fed up, so I thought it was our duty to stand up,” he added, quoting the young man who was filmed cycling into Tiananmen Square during the protests. pro-democracy in 1989.