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Anti-Authoritarian Collective Action Is Happening on a Mass Scale in China

This resistance is the result of a confluence of immediate catalysts and long-term political and economic dynamics.

Demonstrators march along a street during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire as well as a protest against China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions, in Beijing on November 28, 2022.

Young, angry protesters in Shanghai confronted the police that encircled them, calling for freedom and shouting, “Aren’t you supposed to serve the people?!” Hundreds had gathered in the evening of November 26th on Urumqi Road in Shanghai, which has served as the symbolic site to hold vigils to pay tribute to the victims of a fire at a high-rise residential building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province.

The fire led to the death of at least ten people and injured nine others from several families. It took three hours to extinguish it. Protesters believe that the victims could have been saved had the residential complex not been under Covid lockdown, despite the government’s claims that the tragedy had nothing to do with the lockdown.

The deaths ignited a nightlong riot in Urumqi on November 25th, with demonstrators gathering in streets and public spaces, demanding that the government ease restrictions. Urumqi has been subject to repeated lockdowns for months, so people were already fed up and feared that something like the fire in the residential building was bound to happen.

The local government has imposed harsh and dangerous measures that included sealing off not only apartment complexes, but individual apartments with iron bars and new locks that prevented people from leaving their homes. Everyone subject to the lockdown had already wondered what would happen if a fire broke out.

Nationwide protests followed at universities, in communities, and on the streets of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and elsewhere in a powerful show of anger over the avoidable loss of life and their own frustrations with the Covid lockdowns. Thus far, there have been actions at more than 50 universities and colleges across China.

Students variously called for liberty, democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law and against the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Students at the prestigious Peking University sang the “Internationale,” which is taught in school and represents the spirit of revolt from below, while students at Tsinghua University and elsewhere held up pieces of white paper to symbolize their mourning of the victims in defiance and mockery of political censorship.

One female student at Tsinghua University spoke out in a trembling voice, “If we dare not to speak out because of our fear of arrest, I think the people will be disappointed in us.” For the overwhelming majority of protesters, this was their first demonstration. There has been nothing like this on this scale and so openly anti-government in China for decades.

An Uprising Against Lockdowns

It is simply stunning how quickly masses of people have risen up and challenged the government and its policies. It is worth pointing out that this rebellion follows hot on the heels of Xi Jinping securing a third term at the highly orchestrated political theater of the 20th Party Congress in mid-November.

Xi had stacked the event with his allies and made sure that there were no alternatives to his new leadership team. Mainstream political analysis believed Xi had cemented total power and control over China for years to come. Workers and students have now shattered that illusion.

Seemingly out of nowhere, in late October, workers assembling iPhones and other consumer electronics in Foxconn’s mega-facility in Zhengzhou, Henan, which employs over 200,000 workers, began to jump over walls and run away from the factory. Images of long lines of workers walking with their bags confounded the public, as it is something that has not been seen in recent memory.

These workers, many of whom are temps hired for the busy season, had been placed under the so-called closed-loop system. It prohibits workers from leaving the facility under the pretense of protecting them from contracting Covid.

The underlying motive, of course, is keep the workers churning out products for multinational corporations for the upcoming holiday season. Despite the closed-loop system, some workers did catch the virus, and then out of fear of a mass outbreak and being trapped in a lockdown, they fled the facility.

Under public pressure, Foxconn apologized and allowed workers to leave. The local government followed by helping Foxconn recruit new temps with offers of high bonuses, and ordered local state employees to report for work to keep the plant in operation.

But Foxconn changed the terms of contract agreements, reducing workers’ pay. Feeling lied to and cheated, workers started a riot, spilling out of the factory gate and clashing with security and the police. The government responded by imposing a Covid lockdown on the entire city of Zhengzhou to bring the protest to a halt. What started as a labor dispute escalated into a riot that caught the attention of the entire country.

Before the dust was settled at Foxconn, the fire in Urumqi triggered a riot. The local government’s attempt to appease the people in Urumqi by easing the lockdown failed to quell the resistance. The fire was the last straw for a country pushed to the brink by lockdowns.

People went into collective action on a mass scale throughout the country. What the riots at the Foxconn plant and in Urumqi demonstrated to the public is that the harsh Covid restrictions can be resisted: people staged protests, and these forced Foxconn and the local government to begin to change.

The outpouring of grief and anger in the aftermath of the fire has been compared to the reaction to the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who had protested the government’s initially inept and repressive handling of the pandemic. That produced a wave of opposition to the government.

Since then, many had wondered where that spirit had gone, and were stricken with “political depression” over the seeming acceptance of the new zero-Covid policy. But it turns out that the initial spirit of resistance was never far from the surface. Foxconn and Urumqi rekindled it on a mass scale.

Waves of Local Resistance

This resistance is the result of a confluence of immediate catalysts and long-term political and economic dynamics. It has shattered a certain political-psychological barrier among large numbers of people, leading them to lose their fear of arrest in a highly surveilled state and join mass demonstrations. In an environment where the threshold for participating in open expression of dissent on the street is very high, crossing that threshold itself is remarkable.

That China has not experienced any open form of dissent such as riots, mass protests and demonstrations is a fiction. In fact, China has had waves of large-scale protests and strikes in the 1990s, 2000s, and early 2010s. The Chinese government used to document what they termed “mass incidents,” which was never clearly defined but nonetheless demonstrated social resistance against the inequalities and oppressions of contemporary China.

These incidents grew from 8,700 in 1993 to 87,000 in 2005 – or 238 incidents every single day of the year—when the government stopped releasing figures. In 2013, two activists began collecting statistics on social unrest. Before their arrest, they recorded over 28,000 mass incidents in 2015.

That number is certainly an undercount. The activists did not have the resources to document the much higher total number of incidents across the country. Most of these are caused by labor disputes, land seizures and other rural conflicts, and protests over urban housing policies. There have also been environmental protests and confrontations with notorious urban management bureaucrats.

These actions have been local and protesters tended to avoid criticizing the national government, blaming instead local officials or employers in the hopes of avoiding repression and persuading the national government to take their side in the disputes. Nonetheless, they demonstrate that people in China have a long record of protesting against injustices.

The End of an Era of Relative Social Peace

Seen in this light, the national wave of protests against lockdowns and the calls for more freedom and democracy and denunciations of authoritarianism are extraordinary and unprecedented in recent history. The protests are against more than just the Covid restrictions; they are against the government’s increasing intrusion on people’s daily lives. This is a new development.

Beginning in the 2000s, the Chinese state withdrew from the private sphere, at least for the urban middle-class and some sections of the industrial working class. The government had withdrawn from that sphere to allow a bourgeoning consumer society to develop, in which consumption of goods and entertainment was experienced by people as freedom from government meddling.

During the same period from the 2000s to the early 2010s, civil society seemed to flourish with organizations becoming more vocal on social issues, and print and social media were more aggressive in working to hold the government accountable. Of course, millions of workers were exploited by state and private corporations and constrained by state policies regulating their mobility, and the party-state restricted political activity.

But otherwise, middle-class and working class people did not fear state interference in their private lives. And with the economy at that point still growing rapidly, rising living standards for most seemed to compensate for the state’s rigid denial of freedom and democracy.

Lockdowns and Economic Precarity

Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy and its lockdowns changed all of this. Suddenly, people’s freedom of movement and daily life became subject to direct control by the state, and the slowing growth of China’s economy compromised people’s sense of their future prospects. But opposition to the state’s intrusiveness took time to develop.

The government’s Covid policies were initially tolerated as a part of the collective effort to defeat Covid-19. In fact, the initial anger at the spread of Covid was directed at the lack of state action to contain the virus. There was a genuine fear of being infected, which not only could make people sick but also put them into hospitals and quarantine facilities for prolonged periods of time.

Thus the lockdown in Wuhan in the early months of 2020 and the subsequent lockdowns across the country were largely accepted, if not celebrated. They were seen as necessary sacrifices to protect people’s lives. But in reality, the state was imposing its new zero-Covid policies not only to stop the pandemic but also to quell the escalating social conflicts that had emerged in the 2010s, and to save Chinese capitalism.

Most of the policies of the Chinese state in the last few years, apart from zero-Covid, were primarily directed at curtailing the speculative excesses in the high-tech and real estate sectors and restoring economic growth. The state has also taken a more active role in incentivizing couples to have more children to overcome China’s looming demographic crisis precipitated by low birth rates and an aging population.

All of this entailed increased state intervention into the economy and society. Zero-Covid then took the intrusiveness to an unprecedented level. The state’s draconian new policy of lockdowns was certainly not the only option.

In the early months of the pandemic, mutual aid networks in Wuhan and elsewhere demonstrated an alternative. People delivered protective gear, transported medical workers, and supported residents in need. They worked to fill the vacuum left by state inaction.

All of this was shut down once the state stepped in and took control of fighting the pandemic. Since then, it has used its capacity to mobilize personnel and resources to enforce the zero-Covid policy. For much of 2020 and 2021, it seemed to have succeeded.

While many other countries suffered huge losses of life and economic crisis, China allegedly kept its death toll under a few thousand and maintained economic growth through 2021. People’s lives seemed to return to normal. The government seized upon its seeming success to whip up nationalism.

Accumulated Anger

This all came undone over the course of the past year. In 2022, some cities have been under lockdown for weeks and months at a time. The “Big White,” as medical workers dressed in hazmat suits were colloquially called, who had been looked up to as heroes making personal sacrifices for the collective good, became impersonal enforcers of harsh state policies.

People shared footage on social media of them chasing and beating up those deemed in violation of Covid protocols. The hazmat suits have now become masks to disguise these enforcers’ identities, providing them anonymity and with that the confidence to engage in repression with impunity.

A string of Covid-related incidents further undermined faith in zero-Covid. Here are just a few examples: A bus taking infected patients to a quarantine facility crashed, killing 27 passengers. There has been a spike in suicides committed by those under prolonged quarantine. People were thrown into desperation when under lockdown they were deprived adequate access to food in Shanghai. In Guangzhou, migrant workers broke out from under lockdown. And untold numbers of people fell seriously ill after being locked in their homes with Covid and denied access to medical care at hospitals.

These and many other stories sparked anger, and that anger accumulated. Protests began to emerge early this year but were mostly isolated and more easily contained. Perhaps the most iconic of these was the lone protester hanging a banner over Beijing’s Sitong Bridge just before the 20th Party Congress that criticized the zero-Covid policy and called for change. While it only sparked limited copycat actions throughout China, it encouraged many Chinese international students in the West to follow suit and put up similar banners on their campuses.

Shattered Hopes for Change

A milestone in this whole story was the 20th Party Congress. Since the term limit for the Party Secretary had already been removed in 2018, no one was surprised at Xi extending his rule. The term limit essentially helps reshuffle different factions of the Communist Party to achieve balance and ensure orderly leadership transition.

Nevertheless, the maximum term limit cultivates hope that every ten years someone new will assume power and do things differently. Even this modest hope–which usually turns out to be an illusion that quickly turns into disappointment–was shattered.

People feel they are stuck with the same political system for the foreseeable future. Any lingering hope in the self-renewal and self-adjustment of the political system is no more.

Loss of hope in government reform developed at the very same time that people’s economic prospects turned bleak. After rebounding in 2021, China’s economic growth has slowed down. Some local governments, already losing revenues, are struggling to pay for mass Covid testing. The economic pain is keenly felt by workers, especially informal workers, whose livelihood and employment are most susceptible to lockdowns.

For young people, youth unemployment rate has hit a record high in recent months, reaching almost 20 percent among those between 16 and 24 years of age, while new college graduates face a dire employment situation. Record numbers are entering into the labor market each year at the very same time that jobs are shrinking, with China’s leading tech companies laying off their employees rather than hiring. This precarity has stoked anxiety and anger among young professionals and workers.

Some people have hoped for a relaxation of zero-Covid after Xi secured the leadership at the 20th Party Congress. The government sowed that illusion when it issued a new 20-point guideline that eased restrictions but fell short of implementing a new direction.

A few local governments, such as Hebei province’s capital, Shijiazhuang, went further, lifting testing requirements and removing free testing. But many residents opposed this, and under pressure the local government reversed course and reinstated free testing. And now, with an upsurge of cases reaching its highest ever of over 30,000 a day, the government has reverted back to lockdowns to contain Covid throughout the country.

As a result, people are losing faith in the government’s ability to change, doubt the effectiveness and rationality of its zero-Covid policy, and are reluctant to tolerate the sacrifices it imposes on them. They are also troubled by what appears to be an arbitrary and irrational implementation of the policy.

Decisions about lockdowns of specific communities and homes are made by sub-municipal, local authorities, and they are often unexplained and cannot be challenged. The end of political illusions, economic precarity, and the irrational brutality of zero-Covid combined to build up mass frustration.

Mass Resistance Without an Infrastructure of Dissent

Mass frustration has exploded into protest over the last few days. The mobilization has been remarkable, and it has given people the confidence to express their mounting dissatisfaction. A critical mass of people overcame the fear of government repression and shared messages online, something that after the Sitong Bridge protest led to people’s social media being censored and their accounts suspended or permanently banned. Now emboldened, people are posting and sharing comments and videos on Weibo and Wechat.

Some of the protests seem to have been spread via social media or encrypted communication tools such as Telegram, although it is not easily accessible to most people. Driven by anger and indignation, people somehow find out about actions on social media and through word of mouth and rush out to join them.

Many of the protests have happened on campuses as well as in apartment complexes. These two sites involve shared spaces, enabling people to coordinate actions more easily than on the streets with participants from all over the city. As of yet, there is no centralized national leadership of any kind, and it is unlikely any will emerge. And though there are many active individuals, there also does not seem to be any local leadership.

That should come as no surprise. The Chinese state has not only banned all independent political parties, but also crushed human rights, civil society groups, and outspoken individual dissidents. It has broken up social movement infrastructure to call, organize, and sustain mass struggle. No one can lead or speak on behalf of the demonstrators.

But the demands are already clearly articulated and crystalized: opposition to the lockdowns. This is not to say the movement is unified. As in any mass movement and especially one without central leadership, there are multiple social groups with sometimes overlapping and differing demands that vary by class and locality.

The Foxconn workers’ demands were focused primarily on workplace demands and secondarily on the Covid restrictions; the protesters in Urumqi expressed the strongest, immediate demands to lift the Covid restrictions that endanger their lives; university students are showing solidarity with those protesters in Urumqi while their demands focus on calling for democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rule of law; and the least reported and much more widely spread is the local, small-scale resistance by residents taking place within apartment complexes and gated communities that are centered on the easing of restrictions.

The character of protests is also not uniform; they range from peaceful to overt confrontation. Most of these express liberal demands that are not radical in liberal democracies but are highly subversive in an authoritarian state. And they carry with them progressive and democratizing effects.

Despite this heterogeneity, the protests express a shared sense of people resisting the loss of dignity and of the denial of their ability to shape state policy that determines their lives. They share a sense that their very lives are at stake.

The national character of the uprising is important to underline. The protests are feeding off one another and showing solidarity with one another, emboldening different sectors to take action. Moreover, overseas Chinese students and the broader diaspora have also been mobilizing in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the UK, the US and Australia.

Dilemma of an Authoritarian Regime Faced With Resistance

Faced with a national wave of demonstrations, the Chinese state is caught in the classic dilemma of an authoritarian regime. Conceding and relaxing the zero-Covid measures risks confirming that protest works and encouraging others to organize and fight for their demands. But not conceding may drive demonstrators to escalate their struggle and invite others to join.

In recent years, the Chinese state managed to maintain a kind of equilibrium, combining repression and accommodation to manage and contain social conflict. But it has never faced a protest movement on such a scale.

As the demonstrations spread and radicalize, with some adopting explicitly anti-government and anti-party slogans such as “Step down CCP” and “Step down Xi Jinping,” the possibility of state repression increases exponentially. At the same time, it is not inconceivable that a combination of selective repression and limited concessions on Covid restrictions could quell the protests. This has been a pattern in the past with urban demonstrations dissipating just as quickly as they came together.

Yet even if the state is able to contain the demonstrations, the problem that brought us here in the first place remains. China is probably not ready to abandon zero-Covid. Doing so–without a legitimate, mass vaccination system–would lead to mass spread of the virus through a population that has either had ineffective Chinese vaccinations or remains unvaccinated, especially the elderly.

Such an outbreak would overwhelm hospitals and even a low rate of fatalities would, in a country of 1.4 billion people, lead to unprecedented mass death. One modelling by Chinese scientists estimate that at the current vaccination and hospital capacity level, opening up may result in 1.55 million deaths.

Such a catastrophe could provoke an even worse legitimacy crisis for the Chinese state, which likely has been a part of their calculation to maintain zero-Covid. There is no denying that without an adequate vaccine and adequate healthcare measures, harsh Covid restrictions saved lives in China.

Opening up is not an option without massive investment in the healthcare system and immunization of the elderly. Many analysts have wondered why this has not been done. To do so now, however, will take time, something that protesters may not tolerate.

The party is so opaque that we have little idea about what it is likely to do. The newly reshuffled leadership stacked with Xi loyalists shows no sign of disunity, so it is doubtful that there will be any split in the party and open debate between factions in public.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the demonstrations, ordinary people in China are being radicalized by this experience and many have become self-organized. This has dramatically raised mass consciousness and the experience of struggle for justice will stay with them regardless of the outcome. That bodes well for the future.

In the coming days, right-wing forces in the rest of the world’s great powers may well exploit the revolt from below to justify attacks on China. But our solidarity with the people who are protesting and whose demands are rooted in the concrete, lived experiences should never waver.

Supporting people protesting from below will not escalate the US-led imperial conflict with China. In fact, our popular solidarity across borders is the best way to dampen down tensions and build a common international struggle for justice, equality, and democracy, all of which are under threat from our rulers throughout the world.