After the biggest outbreak of political demonstrations since the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, Beijing announced on December 7 that it would end its anti-Covid policies of lockdowns, mass testing, and mass quarantines. The concessions followed a flaring of protests in more than 20 cities, starting in late November. After 10 people were killed in a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, on November 24, thousands of demonstrators gathered across urban centers and college campuses during the following three days, demanding an end to national zero-Covid policies—and in some cases, chanting calls for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to step down. Amid intensive global media coverage, the challenge to Beijing’s authority has surprised many close observers of Chinese affairs, given the one-party regime’s long history of quashing dissent—and extensive system for surveilling its citizenry. Meanwhile, any change in China’s domestic political dynamics could have major implications for global politics, as Xi has positioned the People’s Republic—and its political system based on centralized control—as the world’s leading rival to the United States in global influence. So, are the recent protests across China a passing phenomenon, or is something fundamentally changing?
Alec Ash is a writer and editor based in China, and the author of Wish Lanterns, a book on the lives of six young Chinese people. As Ash sees it, the protests represent a major landmark—the first time many Chinese have questioned whether the Communist Party was acting in their best interests. He doesn’t see a fundamental threat to the regime yet—because popular grievance has been focused on the zero-Covid policies and not on the system as a whole. But it’s still unclear what will become of the long-simmering discontent in China’s youngest generations, with the growing sentiment among them that the Chinese state isn’t delivering the material improvements it’s promised them in exchange for their hard work—and silence.
Michael Bluhm: Who’s been involved in these protests?
Alec Ash: It’s a good question to start with. Anytime there is a protest in China, headlines in Western media often jump to “Tiananmen Redux!”—and then a closer examination of events on the ground inevitably complicates the analogy. But in this case, the protests beginning on November 24 genuinely were unprecedented in the last 30 years.
Now, the numbers of people protesting in 20-or-so cities around China are nowhere near the tens of thousands protesting on Tiananmen Square in 1989. But friends and sources in Beijing report that for every protester holding up a blank sheet of paper—or any other protest iconography—there were another five onlookers who were very likely sympathetic to them.
The protesters tend to skew young and to be people directly affected by the zero-Covid policy—people whose ability to earn has been affected by the lockdowns—meaning, they’re more likely to be urban. They also include a broad swath of the working class. The protests appear to have attracted different segments of the population and people from different cities across China. It’s the first time I’ve seen a single policy issue unite and activate such geographically and demographically diverse groups in the country.
Bluhm: You say young people are the core of this movement. There’ve been signs of social unrest among them for some time now. Income inequality is rising, and people are increasingly likely to stay in the social class they were born into. In late 2021, Victor Shih told us that many young people were frustrated that they—and their parents—had invested so much in their education, and yet their employment prospects were more and more limited. The regime had long seemed to promise its citizens a deal, exchanging most of their rights and freedoms for continually robust economic growth. And now young people increasingly feel they aren’t getting what they were promised in the deal. How do you see the sources of discontent among young people in China?
Ash: I wrote a book in 2016, Wish Lanterns, about the lives of six young Chinese. The vast majority of the people I spoke to simply weren’t engaged with politics—not out of apathy or affection for the Communist Party, but because they still felt they had the opportunity to make better lives for themselves. They hoped for upward social mobility, good jobs, the prospect of buying a flat; they hoped their futures could be better than their parents’ lives.
The protests appear to have attracted different segments of the population and people from different cities across China. It’s the first time I’ve seen a single policy issue unite and activate such geographically and demographically diverse groups in the country.
I’m not sure this feeling is shared by the generation born after 1990. Many of them were complaining about a lack of opportunity even before Covid. Youth unemployment is now pushing 20 percent. And many participate in what is called passive resistance, whether by escaping the cities altogether or “lying flat,” the Chinese term for when young people either quit or scale back their work at jobs that demand long working hours.
The deeper malaise and discontent that underlies the anger at the zero-Covid policy among young people is this sense that they’re not getting what they were promised in their tacit deal with the government. They’re not guaranteed a good job, social mobility, or personal economic development. Instead, there’s a sentiment that whatever they do, they’re screwed. Covid—with the limits that it put on their education and entry to the job market—was the catalyst for them to express that discontent, but the discontent was already there.
Bluhm: So, China’s economy has been hit hard by Covid, and there were signs of trouble even before it. The government had meanwhile cracked down on the tech sector, seriously harming some of the country’s biggest companies, which lost more than US$1 trillion in valuations and are now hiring far fewer people. And there’s an ongoing property bubble, which has caused some regional banks to collapse. How much discontent are these economic problems causing?
Ash: You’re bang on the money, to use an appropriate phrase. The impact on people’s wallets is the great uniting factor behind discontent about the zero-Covid policy. I had a conversation with someone in China shortly after the Shanghai lockdown was lifted, and he said the Chinese people are happy to give up their freedoms, but when you start messing with their economy, that’s a different matter.
The lockdowns are messing not just with individual livelihoods but with the economy at large. This unites all social segments in saying, Enough—this has got to stop. That’s what’s been driving the protests.
The impact on people’s wallets is the great uniting factor behind discontent about the zero-Covid policy. … The lockdowns are messing not just with individual livelihoods but with the economy at large.
I’d like to think that the top echelons of China’s government know this and share the opinion. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang seemed to express it once. Many people are wondering why China has been pursuing a policy that’s actively damaging its economy. But they’re caught between a rock and a hard place, given the high number of deaths that opening up the economy would mean.
Bluhm: You mention that these protests have attracted support from different demographic groups, apparently often connected by economic grievances with the zero-Covid policy. How widespread is discontent with the regime?
Ash: It’s important to recognize that not everyone is unhappy with the zero-Covid policy—or with the regime. There’s a whole segment of the Chinese population, especially in rural areas, that’s perfectly happy with the policy. They completely buy the propaganda about zero-Covid and what a mess other countries are in. They have no real sense of solidarity with the cities under lockdown.
That said, many people are not happy with the policy and have now been very vocal about it—probably more than half the population. The protests have united elites and working classes—which is another parallel with Tiananmen, although this is a very different set of circumstances.
Bluhm: You say probably more than half the population opposes the zero-Covid policy. Of course, there is no public-opinion research on anti-regime sentiment in China—an authoritarian country of some 1.3 billion people. But do you have a sense of how substantial the groups are that oppose the regime?
Ash: You’re right, that’s just an estimate—no one knows any concrete numbers. Effectively, no one who’s been protesting opposes the regime as such. Of course, the headlines picked up on the chants from November 25 calling for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down. But that was the only instance of protesters using this slogan. Almost no one has called for any kind of regime change—just an end to the zero-Covid policy.
Which chimes with what I heard in from people in Beijing at the end of October, during the Chinese Communist Party Congress, who were fed up with all the Covid restrictions and blamed the government for them.
But we can take it at face value that they’re asking simply for an end to the policy rather than for an end to the regime. Still, it was apparent in Beijing, as it has been in other cities, that these policies are, without question, extremely and unusually unpopular among the majority of the Chinese people.
Effectively, no one who’s been protesting opposes the regime as such. Of course, the headlines picked up on the chants from November 25 calling for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down. But that was the only instance of protesters using this slogan.
Bluhm: China has a reputation for the mass surveillance of its citizenry, as well as a tight grip on the internet and other forms of communication. How did protesters in so many places across the country coordinate the protests—if they were coordinated at all?
Ash: Telegram groups, coded language on the social-media platform WeChat—like, Let’s go for a walk—and social-media posts all enabled the protests to snowball. People nearby saw these protests were happening and then went to join—or just observe, out of curiosity. I’m not sure this counts as properly coordinated, and there doesn’t seem to have been any central coordination, with the exception of student protests.
Bluhm: What do you anticipate being the regime’s most likely responses, beyond the concessions they’ve made already?
Ash: There is no easy path for the government to take now; they’ve trapped themselves in a corner. They can’t fully open up tomorrow, because then there’d be hundreds of thousands of deaths—which wouldn’t be great for their legitimacy, either. And they can’t continue the policies indefinitely, given the amount of public anger and damage to the economy.
Bluhm: How much of a threat do these protests represent to the regime, then?
Ash: I don’t think there’s any immediate existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. The protests were over by the end of the weekend, and the state has a well-rehearsed plan for how to prevent them from popping up again, which it’s already putting into action. The security state has clamped down, and the censorship machine has sprung into action. I’d be surprised to see any widespread protests like these repeat anytime soon.
That said, this is a very meaningful moment for the party and for China. It’s the first time in over a decade of living in the country when I could see people beginning to question whether the party was acting in their interests. That’s a huge change, because for the last decade or so, most Chinese people lived with the belief that the party was acting entirely in their best interests—unless they were a dissident or a minority caught in the state’s teeth.
So it’s immensely meaningful that so many Chinese are starting to question that—in the context of questioning a national policy. I don’t think this will lead to regime change now or in the medium term. But it’s a turning point in the Chinese people’s relationship with their state. Whatever it leads to, it will be in the history books.