Bill was standing beside a group of people in their 20s, when a young woman began leading the chanting. “Give me liberty, or give me death,” she shouted, her voice cracking at one point.
Others followed her example, repeating the chant and raising blank sheets of paper, which was a symbol of the most recent wave of protests in China.
“I had tears in my eyes,” said Bill, a 24-year-old graduate student in Chengdu who, like all the other people interviewed for this story, asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of retribution. “Hearing those people chanting these words, in China of all the places, makes me feel that I have never been alone.”
“If all of us can be this brave, then this country will still have hope,” he added.
In a rare nationwide display of defiance, protests calling for an end to China’s harsh zero-COVID policy erupted over the weekend in several major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, and on campuses of dozens of universities, creating one of the biggest political challenges to the government since the unrest in Hong Kong in 2019.
The demonstrations began after a fire in a high-rise apartment building in Xinjiang’s Urumqi last Friday that left at least 10 people dead; protesters blame the deaths on the strict measures linked to the government’s zero-COVID policies. Videos posted online showed that the barriers erected in front of the neighbourhood compound, as part of the city’s prolonged coronavirus lockdown, hampered the firefighters’ access to the building.
The outpouring of anger, at a level rarely seen in China’s tightly controlled society, consumed Chinese social media. In post after post on Weibo and WeChat, two of China’s biggest social media platforms, people demanded justice for the victims and that the government drop zero-COVID, which has slowed down the economy and upended millions of people’s lives.
“WeChat felt like a war that night,” Su, a freelance writer based in Shanghai, wrote on the platform. “Almost every minute, someone writes or reposts something that would normally be deemed too sensitive to share.”
As was expected, the censors were quick to remove posts. Trending topics about the Urumqi Fire, for instance, were pulled down the Weibo list of trending topics, but the sheer volume online discussion caught many platforms off guard and many more posts continued to circulate.
China is not without protests, but they are rare and tend to be restricted in their scope and address clearly defined economic issues such as property, labour and financial. This time, what is unique is the widespread nature of the anger and the common cause of outrage.
The last national political demonstrations took place in 198.9 when college students led an anti-democracy movement which swept across China. The bloody massacre at Tiananmen Square ended the movement and put an unimaginable, but powerful halt to almost all subsequent grassroots protests.
“If you’ve been following Chinese politics for long enough, you have to wonder whether the anti-lockdown protests are getting near the point where serious top-down nationwide crackdown becomes pretty much inevitable,” Taisu Zhang, a professor at Yale Law School, wrote on social media.
The Urumqi fire was the main catalyst for protestors, but in some areas, demonstrations became more political due to zero-COVID (a key initiative by President Xi Jinping).
In Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, named after the city of Urumqi, protesters began to utter words that were previously unimaginable. “Communist Party,” one shouted. “Step down,” the rest of the group responded. “Xi Jinping,” another one called. “Step down,” emboldened demonstrators shouted back.
On Sunday night in Beijing, hundreds gathered to demand press freedom and other demands.
In Chengdu, crowds chanted “China doesn’t need an emperor,” an implicit reference to Xi’s third term and the removal of constitutional limits on presidential terms. In Guangzhou, crowds sang the iconic Cantonese song by the band Beyond with the line “forgive me for my life’s unbridled indulgence and love for freedom.”
One online video showed a young male standing still in front a moving vehicle of police in apparent tribute of the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square. This man was apparently trying to pay tribute the the legendary Tank Man of Tiananmen Square who stood in front a line of tanks as they rolled into the Square in the days leading up to the bloody crackdown of 1989.
The young man, who was more than 30 years old, was quickly pushed down by police and taken into custody with two other men who were standing in front of his vehicle.
Despite being arrested, the anger did not stop. “If I don’t speak up due to fear of the regime, I think our people will be disappointed,” a student said during a protest at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, the alma mater of the Chinese president. “As a Tsinghua student, I’d regret this for the rest of my life.”
“We should not be afraid of our government, and even our national anthem asked us to rise up in times of hardship,” one 36-year-old veteran from the Chinese army said, referring to the Chinese national anthem that starts with the line: “Rise up, people who do not wish to be slaves.”
“I sustained many injuries as a soldier, but I do not regret it, because I’m a Chinese citizen and I believe all of us have the right as Chinese citizens to rise up,” he continued.
Changes in policy
Surprisingly, the government has responded positively to the anger. Lockdowns were lifted at most locations in Urumqi while an overnight project to build a massive quarantine centre in Chengdu was stopped. Others have also changed their approach to mass testing.
Tuesday’s announcement by the government was also a signal that they would accelerate the process of administering vaccinations to the elderly.
However, the security response was also quick.
“The government has a playbook for dealing with these kinds of events and have been hardening the system for many years for just these kinds of threats,” longtime China-watcher Bill Bishop wrote in his Sinocism blog, noting that “political security” is “task number one” for the country’s leadership and security services.
In the initial hours of the protests, state media coverage was largely absent, with occasional mentioning of “foreign forces,” the government’s usual scapegoat.
As the demonstrations grew in strength, arrests were made.
The police presence was increased in nearly all big cities, and — making use of the mass surveillance system built up over the years — the government started to identify protesters using GPS and phone services. On Tuesday, the Communist Party’s top security body called for a “crackdown” on “hostile forces”.
Al Jazeera was told by many sources that random phone searches had also been conducted. Online posts suggested that police were stopping people to search for apps that are banned in China, including Telegram and Twitter, and text exchanges for any mention of words like “demonstrations” or “protests”.
Now, the question is: Where will this wave of protests go?
Some protestors are defiant.
“We are going to keep fighting until we cannot fight anymore, and we don’t know when or how that day will come,” Su from Shanghai said.
Analysts say they are more likely to fizzle than most of these movements in almost all countries.
“Having erupted spontaneously in a short period, they will fade away without reaching any climax or denouement,” William Hurst, a professor at the University of Cambridge and an expert on China, wrote an analysis of events on Twitter.
“A second possibility is some form of comprehensive & decisive repression. This could take the form of a coordinated and possibly quite violent crackdown (as in 1989), or it could be slower-motion and at least somewhat less bloody (as in Hong Kong in 2019-2020),” he continued.
The toughest choices
In addition to the positive changes made so far, observers remain skeptical that any systematic changes will be made to the zero-Covid strategy.
Three years since the first coronavirus cases were detected in the central city of Wuhan, lockdowns, mass testing, quarantine and tracking remain the key tools in the country’s COVID-19 response.
According to the government, such measures are necessary due to the low vaccination rates among seniors who are more susceptible to the disease.
China reported an unprecedented number of cases over the last few days. A slight decline was reported Tuesday.
China’s vaccination campaign has been a puzzle for many.
Despite having had ample time to inoculate its population in the wake of the initial hard lockdowns in the early 2020s, the government failed in its obligation to provide sufficient vaccines to its large elderly or immunocompromised population.
It is also questionable whether Chinese-made vaccines are effective against Omicron variants which are rapidly spreading across the country.
There is a danger that the policy will be relaxed and the health system will not be able to handle the situation, leading to a dramatic increase in deaths.
Many younger people are tired of these arguments and the seemingly inexorable disruptions to their lives.
“It’s a matter of time before each of us gets affected by this series of stupid anti-pandemic measures,” said Max, a 23-year-old resident of Dali in southwestern Yunnan province.
“We are all fed up, so I think it’s my duty to stand up,” he added, quoting the young man filmed riding a bike into Tiananmen Square during the 1989 pro-democracy protests.