By: Adrian Budd who teaches politics and international relations at LSBU and is currently working on a book on China’s political economy.
Despite being small and short-lived, and not called by a nationally-organised opposition, late-November’s protests against the Chinese party-state’s zero-Covid strategy and its consequences were highly significant.
The trigger was a tower-block fire in Urumchi, capital of Xinjiang province, on 24 November. Ten people died, mostly from the Uyghur minority, as a result of China’s severe lockdown restrictions, the building being locked from the outside.
Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, and other Turkic minorities, have endured a settler-colonial regime of mass surveillance, detention, relocation and cultural genocide. Many in Xinjiang have faced quarantine of up to 4 months.
Urumchi’s protesters were mostly Han (the ethnic majority), often criticised for their silence on the oppression of Uyghur Muslims, who the state labels “terrorists”. The protests’ inter-ethnic solidarity was, for one Uyghur exile, “a breaking point” and recognition that Han people also face state oppression. Overseas Han students have apologised for their complicity in Uyghur repression, arguing that democratic and anti-zero-Covid demands are Han-centric and insensitive to Uyghurs if closure of Xinjiang’s concentration camps is not also demanded.
The state blocked social media images of the protests yet they quickly spread to other cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, as protesters circumvented state censorship by posting anonymously and using encrypted platforms like Telegram.
Despite decades of depoliticisation and repressive campus surveillance students from 50 universities protested. Earlier crackdowns on small Marxist study circles and pro-worker activism highlighted the regime's fear of a student revival. The renewal of campuses as spaces for dissent will be crucial for the emergence of a more sustained opposition.
Reinforcing emergent inter-ethnic solidarity, Beijing students sang The Internationale.In Shanghai, meanwhile, authorities removed the Urumchi Road sign, where protesters congregated, “attempting to erase ‘Urumchi’ from Shanghai geography”. Some universities have closed early for Xmas.
Under heavy surveillance people avoid expressing, possibly even feeling, solidarity with others facing oppression. One exception has been feministactivism, and women were also central to the recent protests.
Censorship encourages imaginative protest. Words from China’s national anthem, “rise up, those who refuse to be slaves”, were heard in various cities. More generally, protesters held up blank sheets of paper, representing ”everything we want to say but cannot say”. One online mock-up of large paper-producing company’s message said it was suspending sales to ”safeguard national security and stability”.
Chinese labour scholar Eli Friedman calls the protests“a movement against surveillance”, but their purpose quickly expanded . There were chants of “Down with the CCP! Down with Xi Jinping!”, calls for freedom and democracy and denunciations of authoritarianism.
Protests generally concern local companies and authorities, from which the state distances itself by criticising them for poor enforcement of national regulations. President Xi Jinping’s identification with zero-Covid renders such distancing difficult, a difficulty multiplied by the dovetailing of zero-Covid protests with wider grievances.
October’s mass break-out of migrant workers from Foxconn’s 250,000-worker iPhone production complex in Zhengzhou presented in concentrated form the experiences of many, highlighting the economic and political problems facing China’s state-capitalist system. Foxconn’s “closed-loop system” (shared by Tesla and others) locks down workers between workshops and inadequate dormitories in order to maintain production. Those testing positive are quarantined, with inadequate food, water or medicines. For one escapee, Foxconn is only interested in output and “human life means nothing”.
The subsequent riots over broken bonus-payment promises involving the escapees’ replacements (recruited by local authorities after they initially sent their own staff to maintain production) underlined the complicity of the local state police with giant corporations.
Measured by comparative death-rates zero-Covid has been successful - 10 per million in China, 3,130 per million in Britain – and life expectancy is now higher than in the US. But this is not because the party-state values human life more than the West. Low vaccination rates combine with relatively ineffective vaccines, yet regime nationalism inhibits the purchase of Western vaccines (Western firms, meanwhile, refusing to share mRNA technology). The state also fears that, despite years to prepare, the under-resourced and neglected health-care system will not cope with increased hospitalisations – it has 10% of the USA’s ICU beds per capita. Health infrastructure is under-developed compared to those that contribute more directly to capital accumulation, eg transport.
Ending zero-Covid could produce 620,000 to 1.55 million deaths. Yet, it has become deeply unpopular: a top-down strategy of social control, it entails repeated lockdowns, affecting 340 million on one occasion, which have generated increased suicide rates and mental-health and domestic-violence crises along with shortages of food and medical services.
The protests increased the pressure for zero-Covid relaxations, which began in early-November, but corporate interests remain a more powerful driver of policy. In early-December Foxconn’s founder wrote to the party-state leadership, warning that lockdowns threatened China’s position as an investment location. The Wall Street Journal argues that the letter “played a major role” in the easing of zero-Covid restrictions. Protesters meanwhile have been arrested and face further repression under a surveillance regime strengthened by contact-tracing and mobile technologies.
The solidarity with those arrested that soon appeared on social media may portend momentous times ahead. When Xi Jinping extended his presidency to a third term at mid-November’s 20th Party Congress Western media presented him as all-powerful. In fact, hope for the party-state’s self-reform is evaporating, reinforcing wider disaffection linked to reduced life-chances and economic prospects. The protests challenged the illusion of the party-state’s monolithic power and “their impact will be felt for many years to come”.
Adrian Budd teaches politics and international relations at LSBU and is currently working on a book on China’s political economy.