During the weekend of November 25-27, protests broke out in many Chinese cities, immediately lighting up the China Twittersphere and leading to endless speculation about threats to Xi Jinping’s authority or the prospect of a violent crackdown like the one carried out on June 4, 1989. Chinese government authorities quickly quashed the demonstrations, but the protests are no less meaningful for their brevity. I’ve spent the past 10 days consuming as much as I can about the gatherings, and below I’ve collected a selection of reporting and analysis that I think is especially helpful for non-specialists seeking to understand the story beyond the headlines.
The Big Picture
New York Times journalist Chris Buckley explains how the “murmur of dissent” that had been faintly detectable in Xi’s China suddenly turned into “a collective roar.” At the London Review of Book blog, writer Alec Ash considers not only that collective roar, but also the continued presence of murmured dissent, “a quieter civil disobedience that is ongoing: a public throwing up of the arms, or at least roll of the eyes, when it comes to the Covid security state.”
The immediate catalyst for these protests was a deadly fire at an apartment building in Urumchi, where it’s likely that pandemic lockdown measures impeded the ability of firefighters to control the blaze or rescue residents.
Notable among the protesters was the prominence of students and women. Jessie Lau writes for Novara Media about the students who spoke out, and at Semafor Karina Tsui explains the importance of gender in these demonstrations.
At the New York Times, Li Yuan interviewed more than a dozen young protesters to understand the concerns and frustrations that prompted them to speak out against the Chinese government. CNN has a visual explainer showing the size and spread of the protests.
Eva Rammeloo was on the scene at protests in Shanghai on the night of Sunday, November 27 and writes about the demonstration for the Economist. AP journalists Dake Kang and Huizhong Wu also report from Shanghai, tracing how a vigil attended by only about a dozen people blossomed into a protest of hundreds.
Longtime Beijing residents Jeremiah Jenne and David Moser joined the Sinica Podcast to provide firsthand accounts of the situation in China’s capital. In an episode of the Sharp China podcast, Sinocism newsletter author Bill Bishop offers a comprehensive analysis of the protests and Chinese politics. In an episode of On Point, the host has an excellent conversation with Yangyang Cheng about the protests—if you only listen to one thing for explanation and analysis, this is my pick.
“Organizing in China isn’t as simple as posting an event announcement to an online forum or a rallying cry on social media.” So how did the protests come together? At Rest of World, Viola Zhou and Meaghan Tobin explain the covert, low-tech, and offline tools used to spread the word.
One of the most important sources of information on the protests has been the Twitter account of “Teacher Li,” a Chinese artist living in Italy, whom Han Zheng profiles at The Nation. At MIT Technology Review, Li recounts to Zeyi Yang how he became a clearinghouse for real-time protest news—as well as the risks he has taken in doing so.
While the fire in Urumchi proved crucial in driving people to protest, the demonstrators were also expressing dissatisfaction with the PRC’s long-running zero-COVID policy. What is “zero COVID,” and why did so many in China publicly reject it after almost three years?
Journalist Michael Schuman explains the policy and backlash against it at the Atlantic, while at Foreign Affairs political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang looks at the politics behind the government’s stubborn insistence on sticking to it. Political scientist Jeremy Wallace writes for the Washington Post about the importance of zero COVID’s quantitative emphasis. Prior to the protests, the New York Times assembled a collection of videos that showed how zero COVID has been enforced, often to extreme lengths, and this week the newspaper followed up with a similar story in photos.
Corresponding with students he taught in rural Sichuan in the late 1990s, Peter Hessler explores the many facets of public opinion about COVID and the zero-COVID policy.
Today (December 7), the Chinese government announced that it would relax, though not eliminate, zero-COVID measures. Prior to the announcement, public health scholar Yanzhong Huang wrote for the New York Times about what it could look like for China to put aside the zero-COVID policy.
Zero-COVID has further stunted China’s already slowing economy, causing anxiety and frustration among younger generations. Economic concerns were among the reasons for the protests, as Stella Yifan Xie reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Reporting for the New York Times from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Vivian Wang describes how COVID lockdowns and the economic slowdown have affected workers in a region that powered China’s economy for decades.
A ChinaFile Conversation features comments from a variety of experts, who address topics ranging from the Urumchi fire to what the protests could mean for Xi Jinping’s rule over China.
Council on Foreign Relations fellow Ian Johnson writes for Foreign Affairs about the sudden, stunning emergence of large-scale protests only a month after Xi Jinping secured his third term in office, and what he and the CCP could do to address the grievances of Chinese citizens.
The path forward is also a topic of this New Yorker column by Evan Osnos, who considers how making concessions could play out in two ways for the CCP: “As Xi’s government deals with additional demands, it may face a classic authoritarian dilemma: Will concessions fuel good will, or will they breed more public demands?”
In a Chinese Whispers podcast recorded on Monday, November 28, historian Jeff Wasserstrom and journalist Isabel Hilton talk with host Cindy Yu about China’s history of protest—and make the eerily prescient prediction that the death of Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao could add a twist to how the situation might play out. Following up on that prediction’s realization, at the Atlantic Isabel Hilton considers how the death of Jiang Zemin came at a particularly inconvenient time for Xi Jinping and the CCP, as they walk the line between quelling protest and avoiding any admission of failure in the zero-COVID policy.
As historian James Millward writes at the New York Times, it’s important that a fire in Xinjiang served as the catalyst for protests elsewhere in the country:
The sight of Han Chinese protesting the deaths of Uyghurs is unusual and poignant, because for years, the Chinese party-state has justified its Xinjiang policies by demonizing Uyghurs as terrorists and religious extremists, or at least as ignorant peasants in need of forceful “vocational training.” And now, the images from the Urumqi fire have humanized and normalized Uyghurs for the entire country.
Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, has written an analysis for Foreign Policy that examines the CCP’s approach to maintaining “social stability” over the past decade and how it contributed to the recent protests.
Spectator journalist and podcaster Cindy Yu has a powerful commentary, “Why I’m Grieving for China”:
The hand of the state now reaches into every part of people’s lives – the Communist party dictates where they can go and who they can see. Add to that the Covid shocks to the Chinese economy, record youth unemployment and a teetering property market, and you don’t have to be a pro-democracy activist to see that, for too many people, the CCP is not meeting its side of the deal.
Manya Koetse of What’s on Weibo writes about online discussions of “coming out politically” in China—publicly admitting to one’s political leanings.
In a commentary for CNN, Jeff Wasserstrom and Chris Rea take a serious look at flashes of humor in these protests, and consider the symbolism contained in the blank sheets of paper many protesters have held:
A blank sheet, too, speaks volumes. It makes fun of a censorship regime in which virtually any word can become taboo. It makes the individual illegible to a mass surveillance state, denying that state its invasive prerogative. When an individual says nothing, their words cannot be taken away.
Header Image: “Wulumuqi Road [Shanghai] After Protest,” November 27, 2022. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Cinea467 and used under a Creative Commons license.