November 27, 2022
Another quick note at the end of this holiday weekend to mark yet another story that shouldn’t be overlooked:
Protests have broken out across China after the country’s strict zero-Covid policies appear to have delayed firefighters responding to a deadly apartment fire Thursday night in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, which lies in the country’s vast northwest.
Official reports say at least ten people died and nine others were injured in the fire, and protesters took to the streets in anger at the lockdown and strict testing and quarantine policies the government insists are imperative to protect the country’s vulnerable elderly.
The protests quickly spread to cities around the country and have become political protests against Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who was reelected for an unprecedented third term as head of the Communist Party last month, and against the Communist Party itself. In Shanghai, protesters shouted, “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” In Beijing, university students called for “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”
Observers appear to have been surprised both by the rapid spread of the protests and by the relatively restrained response of authorities, who usually crack down on political protest fast and hard. Those observers note that the country’s zero-Covid policy has meant seemingly unending lockdowns, causing extraordinary hardship for ordinary citizens with no end in sight, even as cases in the country are at an all-time high and rising.
China’s approach to Covid has also exacerbated a harsh downturn in the Chinese economy. Its government focused on mass testing and isolation facilities to keep the virus away rather than on effective vaccines and new hospitals to treat those infected, locking itself into a policy that now appears unsustainable.
Observers attribute the protests to frustration over the lockdowns, concern over the economy, and even the World Cup, which has given the Chinese audience a look at more open and free societies outside China.
While these protests are unusual because of the many different factions that are working together—workers, students, rural protesters, and so on—scholars of China say it is far too early to make predictions about what will come next.