On Thursday, a deadly fire broke out in a predominantly-Uyghur residential building under COVID-19 lockdown in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, and kicked off a series of nationwide protests calling for an end to China’s restrictive pandemic policies. The blaze, reportedly caused by a faulty electrical power strip, spread upwards from the 15th floor to the 17th floor for three hours before it was finally extinguished. Authorities declared ten people dead and nine injured, but Uyghur groups state that the death toll includes dozens more. Dake Kang from the Associated Press described how pandemic control barriers may have prevented residents from escaping, and hindered fire crews attempting to rescue those trapped inside:
Videos circulated on social media showed an arc of water from a distant fire truck falling short of the fire, sparking waves of angry comments online. Some said fire engines had been blocked by pandemic control barriers or by cars stranded after their owners were put in quarantine, but the reason why the truck was far away was unclear.
[…] “Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak … and they failed to escape in time,” said Li Wensheng, head of the Urumqi City Fire Rescue department.
Muhammed Emin disputes that account, citing social media posts saying that many apartment residents were locked in their homes due to COVID-19 controls. Another post said that residents were permitted downstairs for only a few hours a day, and were not free to come and go from the building. The Associated Press could not independently verify the claims in the social media posts. [Source]
The government response to the fire caused a popular uproar. Weibo users criticized the government’s framing of the tragedy, with one responding sarcastically, “We’re sorry, lacking the knowledge to rescue ourselves, sorry to inconvenience you,” and another commenting, “I thought they would come to apologize, instead they came to hold [residents] accountable.” On Friday night, crowds in Urumqi took to the streets to protest, in defiance of pandemic policies that have endangered their lives and kept them in lockdown for over 100 days.
Enraged by the government’s censorship of criticisms about the Urumqi fire, one WeChat essayist wrote a satirical piece titled “Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good: Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good, Good!” The body text mimicked the form of a normal WeChat essay, but replaced all the characters and images with the character “Good.” Although censors promptly deleted the essay, it sparked a round of creative imitation, with other netizens substituting various characters into the “Good” essay’s template. Many of these were also scrubbed by censors. CDT has translated a sample of the derivatives (and their comment sections) below:
“Correct, Correct, Correct, Correct, Correct, Correct, Correct”
“Spot On, Spot On, Spot On, Spot On, Spot On, Spot On, Spot On”
“We’re just chuckling. We’re just chuckling. We’re just chuckling.”
“Nobody’s alive outside our borders. Nobody’s alive outside our borders. Nobody’s alive outside our borders.”
“Good fortune on top of good fortune. Good fortune on top of good fortune. Good fortune on top of good fortune.”
“The best days are behind us. The best days are behind us. The best days are behind us.”
“Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!”
“Long live the glorious Motherland! Long live the glorious Motherland! Long live the glorious Motherland!”
“Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad!”
“Correct! Good! Yes! Of course!”
“Neither Good Nor Bad, Neither Good Nor Bad, Neither Good Nor Bad, Neither Good Nor Bad, Neither Good Nor Bad, Neither Good Nor Bad, Neither Good Nor Bad”
“404, 404, 404, 404, 404, 404, 404” [Chinese]
As news of the incident in Urumqi spread across the country, so too did the protests. Residents of Shanghai, which was put under a two-month lockdown earlier this year, were among the first to hold mass gatherings in reaction to the deaths in Urumqi. Chris Buckley, Vivian Wang, Chang Che, and Amy Chang Chien from The New York Times described how a vigil on Saturday escalated into an anti-government protest:
The political stakes were made stark in Shanghai on Saturday evening, when what started out as a vigil escalated into a street protest.
Dozens of people had gathered on Urumqi Road, named after the city in Xinjiang, to grieve the victims of the fire. As the crowd grew into the hundreds, chants broke out, with people calling for an easing of the Covid controls. “We want freedom,” they said. A small number of them openly denounced Mr. Xi and the Communist Party.
“Xi Jinping!” a man in the crowd repeatedly shouted. “Step down!” some chanted in response.
“This is unheard of in this era,” Professor [Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese governance and political science at Claremont McKenna College] said. “It reflects a great deal of frustration with the Covid policies. People are just tired.” [Source]
The nationwide protests come nearly a month after a solitary protester hung banners from Sitong Bridge in Beijing calling for “food, not COVID tests,” and “freedom, not lockdowns,” while also calling Xi Jinping a dictator and demanding he resign. These slogans, among others, were shouted by protesters in a number of cities during this weekend’s nationwide protests. A second round of protests took place in Shanghai on Sunday, and other cities followed suit. These developments were closely tracked on Twitter, as shown in an extensive compilation by CDT.
In Chengdu, a crowd of protesters chanted “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors.” In Wuhan, people pushed down pandemic barriers. In Lanzhou, residents overturned COVID staff tents and smashed testing booths. At CNN, Nectar Gan reported on what have now broadened into nationwide public protests:
By Sunday evening, mass demonstrations had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, where thousands of residents called for not only an end to Covid restrictions, but more remarkably, political freedoms.
[…] People chanted slogans against zero-Covid, voiced support for the detained protesters in Shanghai, and called for greater civil liberties. “We want freedom! We want freedom!” the crowd chanted under an overpass.
[…] In the southern city of Guangzhou, hundreds gathered on a public square in Haizhu district – the epicenter of the city’s ongoing Covid outbreak that has been locked down for weeks.
“We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom! Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of arts, freedom of movement, personal freedoms. Give me back my freedom!” The crowd shouted. [Source]
BBC Reporter Ed Lawrence was arrested while covering the protests in Shanghai on Sunday. In a statement issued after his release, the BBC held that Lawrence was “beaten and kicked” during his arrest and that Chinese officials claimed they had “arrested him for his own good in case he caught Covid from the crowd.”
Protesters across the country brandished white pieces of paper in lieu of traditional signs. One man in Beijing told Reuters: “The white paper represent everything we want to say but cannot say.” The tactic was previously used in Hong Kong in 2020, and, more recently, in Russia to protest the invasion of Ukraine. The term “white paper” quickly became a sensitive word on Weibo; searches for the term only returned results for verified government accounts. Similar restrictions were imposed on WeChat, with some users reporting that posting photographs about “white paper” to WeChat resulted in the temporary suspension of their public posting privileges. “Urumqi Road,” the site of the Shanghai protests, likewise became a sensitive term across social media platforms, with searches for the term restricted in various ways across Weibo, Douyin, and Bilibili.
Students at Tongji Medical College in Wuhan released an open letter criticizing the country’s coronavirus policy: “If we cannot treat the fight against the pandemic as a public health battle, rather than a primarily political battle focused on assigning blame for ‘whoever caused this current outbreak,’ then this school will continue to drag its feet. Indeed, across the nation, grassroots organizations responsible for implementing pandemic policy will continue dragging their feet!” Students at Tsinghua University and Peking University issued similar letters calling for freedom of movement and freedom of expression, as well as “truthful disclosure” about the nature of the virus. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo reported on the protests at various universities across the country:
At Communication University of China in Nanjing, posters mocking “zero covid” were taken down on Saturday, prompting one student to stand for hours holding a blank piece of paper in protest. Hundreds of students joined in solidarity.
[…] Videos posted on social media on Sunday show a crowd of students at Tsinghua University in Beijing holding up blank pieces of paper and chanting, “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression!” Through a loudspeaker, a young woman shouted, “If because we are afraid of being arrested, we don’t speak, I believe our people will be disappointed in us. As a Tsinghua student, I will regret this my whole life.”
Crowds also gathered at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, holding up their phones as part of a vigil for those who died in Urumqi, according to social media posts. Other posts show blurred-out protest slogans on campuses in four cities and two provinces. [Source]
Censors have already scrubbed a host of content about the protests. A compilation of photographs of the scenes at Urumqi Road, including an image of a young woman wearing a surgical mask with “404” written on it, was censored from WeChat. A three-sentence WeChat essay titled “Fear Not, Children” was taken down by censors, likely after the author took to the comment section to advise protestors of their rights while under interrogation. The body text was a simple statement of solidarity: “The adults haven’t died. The press hasn’t died. We are still behind you.” This was accompanied by the song “The Next Generation Shall Rebuild the Nation,” the hugely popular theme song of a 1980’s television show. A Weibo post documenting a solitary student’s protest at Northwest University of Political Science and Law, a top law school in Xi’an, was censored. While waiting in line for a round of COVID testing, the student reportedly wore a sandwich-board sign that alluded to recent COVID-policy related crises: “I was on the bus that crashed. I was turned away at the E.R. I trekked 100 li. I suffered a breakdown and leapt to my death. I was trapped in that fire. And if I wasn’t among those listed before, I will be in the future.” The student was reportedly taken away by the school—after completing his COVID test, of course—and put on probation for six months.
Feminist activist Zhou Xiaoxuan, better known by her pen name Xianzi, wrote a call to action on Weibo. Censors soon deleted the post and suspended her account, which had 300,000 followers. Zhou demanded action from her readers, warning that tears alone are insufficient to spur change:
Neither history nor the present have promised us that death and sacrifice will spur change. Don’t expect that other people’s disasters—or your own tears—will save you.
Only opposition and resistance can spur change. An era makes us no promises. Yet in this moment we currently inhabit, we share the same fate.
Don’t work for the powers that be. Don’t be silent. We face the call of history equally. Don’t wash your hands of responsibility or hope that you, by some happenstance, will be one of the lucky survivors. [Chinese]
On Saturday, officials in Urumqi declared that the coronavirus was no longer circulating among the general population, but that hundreds of buildings in the city were still designated as high-risk locations for virus transmission. On Sunday, local government officials promised to ease lockdown measures in low-risk areas “in stages,” but they did not specify a time frame. That same day, a front-page commentary in the People’s Daily vowed to “unwaveringly” stick with the existing pandemic controls and called on party cadres at all levels to “resolutely overcome misunderstandings” and “war weariness.” At The Wall Street Journal, Lingling Wei, Brian Spegele, and Wenxin Fan reported on the disconnect between the government’s pandemic policy pronouncements and implementation on the ground:
The protests highlight the rising toll on Chinese society from a Covid strategy built around mass testing and confinement to quash even minor outbreaks—an approach that has become increasingly unsustainable.
[…] Wary of the high stakes, China’s top leadership earlier this month unveiled plans to “optimize and adjust” the policy to rescue the economy. However, local officials across the country doubled down on restrictions when cases started to rise recently.
“A lot of people are reaching the breaking point,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public-health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has been closely monitoring the Covid situation in China.
China saw nearly 40,000 new Covid-19 cases Saturday, including 4,307 in Beijing, according to the latest official tally. [Source]
Public anger about the government’s pandemic policies has been building. A series of recent non-COVID-related deaths linked to these policies in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Henan has fueled fears that more innocent people may die. In September, a bus carrying close contacts of COVID patients crashed in Guizhou and killed 27 people on board. In early November, a three-year-old boy in Lanzhou died of carbon monoxide poisoning after pandemic restrictions prevented him from being taken promptly to the hospital. Weeks later, a four-month-old girl died in quarantine in Zhengzhou after emergency services delayed treatment and sent her to a hospital over 100 kilometers away.
Shortages of food and essential goods have also been exacerbated by lockdowns. Residents in Xinjiang have had trouble securing food and medical supplies during their over-100-day lockdown, and authorities opened “criminal” investigations into netizens who tried to bring attention to people’s suffering under lockdown. Earlier this month, workers fearing hunger during lockdown fled an outbreak at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. A week later, hundreds of migrant workers in Guangzhou protested long COVID lockdowns and food shortages.
Alexander Boyd contributed content and translations to this post.