As China continues to pursue a policy of eliminating the emerging corona virus, public fatigue with the government’s hard-line approach is growing.
A deadly fire in the country’s northwest region of Xinjiang has sparked an outpouring of anger over restrictions and widening lockdowns, with claims that they have hampered rescue attempts.
In a country where public criticism of the government is honed, protesters condemning the regime are rare.
So why are people protesting, how important is it, and where is it all headed?
Why are people protesting?
Crowds took to the streets Friday night in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, chanting “Stop the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air after a deadly fire sparked anger over the prolonged COVID-19 lockdown.
Xinhua reported that 10 people were killed and nine injured when a fire broke out in a residential building in Urumqi on Thursday night.
In this image from video, police, foreground, watch as protesters in Shanghai on Saturday, November 26, 2022. source: aap / AP
Online posts circulating on Chinese and foreign social media platforms since Friday claimed that prolonged lockdowns in the city had hampered rescue attempts.
Videos showed people in a square singing China’s national anthem with its lyric “Arise, those who refuse to be slaves!” Others shouted that they wanted to be released from the lockdown.
What is the significance of the protests?
Richard MacGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, told SBS News that while it’s not unusual to see protests in China, criticism of the Communist Party is rare.
“It is very unusual to see protesters shouting denunciations of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping,” he said.
“This is something we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Can protests lead to change?
MacGregor said it would be difficult to predict whether the protest could lead to any change in policy.
In the short term, there is likely to be some kind of repression to either disperse the protesters or punish them.
“The bigger point is, what happens to COVID-Zero?” he said.
“China is going into winter, and they have a lot of people who are not adequately vaccinated…the government is officially on the side of COVID-0…but I think in many places — though not everywhere — there is frustration with that.
“So the question is whether the policy has been changed or modified and whether we have seen the beginning of that.”
China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature No COVID-19 policy as lifesaving and necessary to prevent the health care system from collapsing.
Officials pledged to continue to do so despite the growing public pressure and its increasing losses on the world’s second largest economy.
“I want to be careful to say that there is one general mood…but in some cities, there is a lot of anger and frustration about politics and it seems to be at a tipping point,” McGregor said.
What was the official reaction?
Urumqi officials suddenly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny the COVID-19 measures that impeded the escape and rescue, but netizens continued to question the official version.
Comments from authorities that residents of the Urumqi building were able to go downstairs and thus likely be seen as victim-blaming only added to the public outcry, said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
“For the first two years of COVID, people trusted the government to make the best decisions to keep them safe from the virus,” Yang said.
“Now people are increasingly asking tough questions and are worried about following orders.”
Reuters verified that the footage was released from Urumqi, where many of its four million residents have been living under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, banned from leaving their homes for up to 100 days.
In the capital, Beijing, 2,700km away, some residents under lockdown staged small-scale protests or confronted their local officials about restrictions on their movement, with some successfully pressuring them to lift them ahead of schedule.
Why are Xinjiang and Shanghai in the spotlight?
Xinjiang is home to ten million Uighurs. Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the Muslim-majority ethnic minority, including forced labor in concentration camps. China firmly rejects such allegations.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, which suffered a two-month lockdown earlier this year, tightened testing requirements on Saturday to enter cultural venues such as museums and libraries, requiring people to submit a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours. . , down from the previous 72 hours.
What are the reasons for the prolonged closures?
China is the latest major economy sticking to a zero COVID-19 strategy, as authorities practice sudden lockdowns, prolonged quarantines and mass testing to stamp out new disease outbreaks as they emerge.
China recorded 34,909 new local infections on Saturday, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic, according to the National Health Commission.
The next few weeks could be China’s worst since the pandemic’s early weeks for the economy and health care system, Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in a note this week, as efforts to contain the current outbreak will require additional local lockdowns. In many cities, which will increase the decline in economic activity.
China said on Friday it would cut the amount of liquidity banks must hold as reserves for the second time this year, freeing up liquidity to prop up the ailing economy.