A week ago, demonstrators took to the streets in the northwest city of Urumqi to protest against China’s strict zero COVID policy. That night, a much larger wave of protests swept through Chinese social media, including the super app WeChat. Users shared videos of protesters and songs like “Do You Hear the People Sing” by Wretched“Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley and “Power to the People” by Patti Smith.
In the days that followed, the protests multiplied. A mostly masked crowd in Beijing’s Liangmaqiao district held up blank sheets of paper and called for an end to strict COVID policies. Across the city, at the elite Tsinghua University, protesters held up printouts of a physics formula known as Friedmann’s equation because his namesake sounds like “free man”. Similar scenes unfolded in cities and college campuses across China in a wave of protests that has been compared to the 1989 student movement that ended in a bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Unlike those previous protests, the protests that rocked China last week were linked and spread through smartphones and social media. The country’s government has tried to strike a balance between embracing the technology and limiting the power of citizens to use it to protest or organize, by creating sweeping powers of censorship and surveillance. But last weekend, the momentum of China’s digitally savvy population and their frustration, bravery and anger seemed to break free from government control. It took days for Chinese censors and police to stifle dissent on the internet and on city streets. By then, images and videos of the protests had spread around the world, and Chinese citizens had proven they could circumvent the Great Firewall and other controls.
“The vibe on WeChat was unlike anything I had experienced before,” says a British national who has lived in Beijing for more than a decade, who asked not to be named to avoid the scrutiny of Chinese authorities. “There seemed to be recklessness and excitement in the air as people grew bolder with each post, each new person testing the government’s limits and their own.” He saw different posts than he had seen before on the tightly controlled internet in China, such as a photo of a Xinjiang official captioned bluntly “Fuck you.”
Chinese netizens have gained an idea of what censors will and won’t allow, and many know how to circumvent certain internet controls. But as the protests spread, young WeChat users seemed to no longer care about the consequences of their messages, a Guangzhou technician told Wired, calling it an encrypted app. Like other Chinese nationals named, he asked not to be named due to the danger of government attention. More experienced organizers have used encrypted apps like Telegram or shared on Western platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, to spread the word.
Anti-lockdown protests began as unofficial vigils for victims of a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang province. The city had been under COVID lockdown restrictions for more than 100 days, which some observers said hampered victims trying to escape and slowed emergency responders. Most, if not all, of the victims were members of the Uyghur ethnic minority, which was the target of a campaign of forced assimilation that sent an estimated 1-2 million people to re-education camps.
The tragedy came as frustrations over zero COVID policies were already beginning to mount. Violent clashes had erupted between workers and security at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou that manufactures iPhones. Scott Kennedy, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC, said when he visited Beijing and Shanghai in September and October, it was clear people had grown “tired” of measures such as regular PCR tests, scanning QR ‘health codes’ to go anywhere, and the constant specter of a new lockdown. “I’m not surprised things boiled over,” Kennedy said. In early November, the government signaled that some restrictions would soon be eased, but the Urumqi fire and the news that COVID cases were rising again, he said, “have pushed people over the edge”.
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