Beijing has seen protests play out in the nation in recent days for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its use of the zero-COVID strategy, with some citizens even calling for President Xi Jinping’s resignation.
The demonstrations in China are the biggest since 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests, which ended when the army crushed the student-led pro-democracy movement, said Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016.
“The regime must be very worried about this because it has it has been spreading into many cities, to universities,” he told Global News.
“It takes a lot of courage on the part of these people, and I think the net result for the regime should be to say, ‘It’s time to reassess our zero-COVID policy.’”
How did China get to this point? Here’s what we know so far.
What is zero-COVID
The zero-COVID policy, which China brought in at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, aims to isolate every infected person to limit the spread of the virus. It has helped to keep China’s case numbers lower than those of other major countries, but at severe costs.
While most of the world has readjusted their COVID-19 policies, China has stuck by its, declaring zero-COVID life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the health-care system.
As a result, some Chinese citizens have been confined at home, sometimes for months. China’s economy has also been dealt a blow by the policy, with critics saying it is disrupting global supply chains and hurting employment and consumption in China.
While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have hit record highs for days, prompting yet more lockdowns in cities across the country. On Monday, the number of new daily cases rose to 40,347, including 36,525 with no symptoms.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called zero-COVID unsustainable. China denounced the remarks as irresponsible.
While there has been criticism of zero-COVID and protests within China before, it appears one event has unified some citizens in resentment.
Why are there protests?
Last Thursday, a fire broke out at a residential highrise building in the city of Urumqi, killing 10 people. Videos of the incident posted on social media led to accusations that lockdowns were a factor in the fatal blaze.
Many of Urumqi’s four million residents have been under some of the China’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days. Chinese officials have denied COVID-19 measures had hampered escape and rescue efforts.
The fire sparked a weekend of protests in at least eight major cities and on several school campuses, a sign the Chinese public’s ability to tolerate the measures has apparently reached a breaking point.
“You have a country with a lot of people (who) have had difficulty finding jobs, who are extremely frustrated, and then all those people (are) suddenly connected with the people who are crying out in desperation. They began to … empathize with the people who actually died, so you see in this context, suddenly there is this shared experience across the country,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
“So all of this is a combination of situations. Most people in China have been going through this for nearly three years now, and their hopes have repeatedly been dashed that they are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Why has China been sticking by zero-COVID?
Zero-COVID has been praised by China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He has said it prioritized and protected people’s health and safety and made a “tremendous achievement in striking the balance between epidemic response and economic and social development.”
After an initial outbreak in early 2020 that killed more than 4,000 people and overflowed hospitals and morgues, China was largely successful in taming the virus while other countries were overwhelmed by it — a contrast trumpeted in Communist Party propaganda.
Then came Omicron, and China once again used widespread restrictions to control the faster-spreading variant, locking down entire cites and starting regular testing of practically the entire population of 1.4 billion people.
Xi, who won a third term as the head of China’s ruling communist party last month, and his party are somehow convinced zero-COVID is still the way forward, said Mary Gallagher, professor of political science with the University of Michigan.
“They’re now stuck because if they do relax from zero-COVID … they’ll have a rise in cases,” said Gallagher.
“Their health-care systems are weaker than systems in the U.S. and other places like Canada, and so they really are at risk of a reopening that could lead to a big increase in deaths.”
The government has said it will keep tweaking its COVID-19 rules to reduce disruptions, and the protests have led to some regions loosening restrictions. The city of Beijing has announced it would no longer set up gates to block access to apartments. Guangzhou said on Monday some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing, citing a need to conserve resources.
However, while some of the protesters are calling for eased measures, others have been challenging the government. On Sunday in Shanghai — a city that experienced a devastating lockdown in the spring that saw people struggle to secure groceries, medicines and were forcefully taken into centralized quarantine — some protesters called for Xi’s resignation.
“The people who are protesting … have really made the connection between zero-COVID and the concentration of power around Xi Jinping,” said Gallagher.
“They see this policy as connected to him personally.”
Zero-COVID was “supposed to demonstrate the superiority of the ‘Chinese model,’ but ended up demonstrating the risk that when authoritarian regimes make mistakes, those mistakes can be colossal,” said Andrew Nathan, a Chinese politics specialist at Columbia University.
“The regime has backed itself into a corner and has no way to yield. It has lots of force, and if necessary, it will use it.”
What happens next?
Over the next few days, Chinese police are likely going to try and quash the protests, said Saint-Jacques.
“The less difficult way for the regime to manage this is to announce major changes to the way that it manages COVID. Otherwise, there will be a huge economic impact,” he said. World markets on Monday tumbled amid the fallout.
However, if the protests persist and the scale increases, it would be “very significant,” Yang said.
“At this point, the authorities were surprised by the scope and also the size of the protests. But even if it’s just one or two weeks, it sends a powerful signal. It lets the authorities know of the people’s concerns,” he said.
At the end of the day, China needs to develop a better reopening plan, Gallagher said.
“There should be discussion and collaboration between public health experts and scientists across the world in helping China develop a better reopening plan, but China needs to ask for their help,” she said.
“Under Xi Jinping, it’s been much more about crowing China’s superior model and about how zero-COVID was so much better than the United States … but it clearly needs to ask for that help.”
— with files from Global News’ Rachel Gilmore, The Associated Press and Reuters