Chinese COVID protests

14 minutes estimated reading time

Chinese COVID protests have been held in major cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing and Chengdu. Why did the Chinese COVID protests happened and what does it mean?

SARS painting
One panel of a SARS triptych that I photographed back in 2010 at a Chinese Communist Party exhibition at the Guan Shanyue Art Museum in Shenzhen, China.

TL;DR (too long, didn’t read)

The Chinese COVID protests aren’t comparable to events like the 1989 protests or Hong Kong in 2019.

The Third Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law protest
The Third Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law protest

Secondly, there are clear parallels for behaviours in other markets. However, when viewed through the lens of Chinese communist party, the restlessness of their population will further feel their paranoia. Part of this paranoia will be down them knowing that they the current administration has let down the population in a long-standing promise on epidemics, initially made by Mao Zedong.

Xi Jinping

This betrayal of the people may be emblematic of deep-rooted flaws in the senior party leadership team. To paraphrase Sir James Porter; a party rots from the head down.

Why did it happen?

After a shaky start, that mirrored the early Chinese government response to SARS[i]. China managed its first wave COVID-19 experience successfully using lockdowns to control the spread of the virus. It pursued what was called a Zero COVID policy. They managed to keep the virus largely contained in Wuhan and the local province of Hubei. By the summer the government held it largely under control.[ii]

There was Chinese government censorship internally[iii] and misinformation[iv] externally[v]. By the summer of 2020, COVID was largely under control within China. By August 2020, Wuhan was able to host a giant pool party of unmasked attendees dancing along to a DJ playing EDM, like it was Ibiza on the Yangtze.

China managed to hold COVID down through strict lockdowns through 2021. But by the spring of 2022, there was an infection peak again and further lockdowns have ensued. 

Over time, China has attempted to be more granular in its approach to lockdowns over time and called this ‘dynamic zero COVID’. However, lockdowns themselves have implicit risks[vi], for instance research found that a rise in depression and anxiety could see a rise of premature death of 134%[vii]. Research has shown that these factors are particularly acute in medical staff involved in treating COVID-19[viii]. Chinese companies and the government tried to address mental health through digital channels, these responses outstripped existing regulations[ix].

The pressure of COVID lockdowns together with mistakes seems to have produced an environment for the protests to grow. 

The BBC coverage paraphrased some of the protestors that they interviewed talking about feeling angry, sad, helpless – in a state of purgatory[x]. One can understand the sense of frustration portrayed and the likelihood of how this can lead to protest in those desperate enough.

Vaccinations with Chinese socialist characteristics

As of July 2022, China had apparently given out over 3 billion vaccines, or enough to have vaccinated the population at least twice and then some[xi]. But the vaccination rate amongst the elderly was significantly lower than other comparable countries by 2022[xii]. This has meant that China is worried about a massive amount of COVID fatalities occurring, if it altered course. 

The lower vaccination rates were attributed to a number of factors including misinformation on social media influencing elderly Chinese to self-quarantine instead. Secondly, immune-compromised people in China were sometimes advised by doctors to not take the vaccine. And the Chinese government chose to vaccinate younger working age people first, as they were more likely to come in contact with the virus[xiii].

What happened to drive the Chinese COVID protests?

A series of insights into the world outside China from Xi Jinping at the G20[xiv] to the World Cup Finals in Qatar showed life going on without face masks[xv]. So Chinese COVID protestors would have a good idea that COVID outside China is much less restrictive in nature. This is the reverse of the reaction that happened during the Wuhan pool party, which fuelled debate and more than a bit of envy in some westerners. 

Inciting incidents

Then a succession of horrific mistakes by the Chinese government and big business fuelled consumer frustration and anger in the months leading up to the protest: 

  • A bus transporting people to a quarantine facility in Guizhou province killed 27 people and injured another 20[xvi].
  • Foxconn delayed bonus payments[xvii] to workers locked down on their factory and provided insufficient food for the quarantined workers[xviii]
  • An apartment block fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang caught fire[xix]. The fire was covered on state television. The ten deaths that occurred were blamed by protestors on COVID lockdown conditions. I want to add that this doesn’t mean that Han Chinese have put aside long-standing prejudice and suddenly feel brotherly solidarity with Uighur citizen[xx]; but they could see the same thing happening to themselves if they got caught in a lockdown. This distinction is important as Han-Uighur solidarity would represent many bigger problems for the Chinese government

The common thread amongst all the inciting events is that Chinese protestors could easily see themselves in the place of victims of these disasters. You can combine this with frustration and a perfect storm for the Chinese COVID protests in major cities. Western coverage has given some weight to those voices who shouted for Xi Jinping to resign[xxi], this doesn’t signify a colour revolution in motion. Instead, these are likely more a measure of frustration with COVID restrictions. But they could be personally and politically embarrassing for Xi Jinping and reinforce existing internal Chinese communist party fears. 

Government response to Chinese COVID protests

The communist party looked to censor online channels of the protests[xxii], but netizens kept reposting the content. Since China has a real ID policy for mobile phone numbers and digital accounts these posters knew the risk of being traced by the security apparatus. 

Government influenced media and online personalities promoted a narrative that the protests had been instigated by external influence. This immediate leap to speculate on foreign influence is in keeping with Xi Jinping’s vision of constant vigilance and paranoia on internal national security

The allegations of foreign influence were used to mobilise patriots[xxiii] to try and intimidate foreign journalists during previous crisis, but failed to achieve the same goal this time. 

This narrative was anticipated and ridiculed by the protagonists in the Chinese COVID protests[xxiv].  

Which foreign forces do you talk about? Karl Marx or Friedrick Engels?

Attributed to a protestor in Beijing

A heavy police presence managed to restrict protestors gathering on subsequent evenings[xxv]. University students have been sent home early from the end of the semester, to prevent further student activism on campus[xxvi].  Chinese authorities immediately set out to track down those who participated in, or supported the protests.

But in Guangzhou, the heavier police presence resulted in a violent clash with protestors. The scene has a ridiculous aspect to it with riot police wearing Tyvek bunny suits to protect themselves against COVID infection[xxvii].

Quiet moves

Some cities in China like Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have started to ease off from their COVID testing regime in the face of Chinese COVID protests; yet the infection numbers are reaching record rates in the country[xxviii].

China is justifying this, by claiming that Omicron infections were less likely to result in death. Scientific experts disagree[xxix] and point to Hong Kong’s COVID-19 wave during the spring[xxx] as an indicator of what we’re likely to expect in China. 

What’s less apparent is how China will improve vaccination rates. China’s inability to force older citizens to vaccinate belies the countries authoritarian nature. 

This inability to vaccinate is particularly curious, as it chips away at the Chinese communist party’s legitimacy. It is over 64 years since the founder of modern China Mao Zedong wrote ‘Farewell to the God of Plagues’[xxxi], yet the party under Xi Jinping is still struggling to vanquish COVID-19 after almost three years. 

While western media speculates about the reasons why China won’t use more effective foreign vaccines[xxxii], I find the inability to vaccinate the elderly a bigger mystery. 

China engaged in foreign interference, by attempting to spam foreign social media platforms to try and crowd out and conceal genuine posts covering the Chinese COVID protests[xxxiii].

What can we learn from other countries experiences with regards the Chinese COVID protests?

China managed to avoid the number of deaths that occurred in other countries so far as we know through lockdowns, quarantine and controlled access to public spaces based on regular testing. 

But it isn’t the only country to experience a youth-based resistance to COVID lockdown style restrictions. Kings College London conducted research throughout the COVID pandemic. 

As locked down was eased they found that about 24 percent of the population were likely to think that the restrictions should be lifted faster and saw the risks of COVID-19 as being lower than the rest of the population[xxxiv]. During lockdown King’s College London research identified a group called ‘the resisting’[xxxv].

The resisting were about 9 percent of the population. They skewed young and male with a mean age of 29. They were outliers in terms of belief in rumours and have a high usage on social media usage.

A hypothetical Chinese technocrat looking for comfort in these numbers would see a silent majority that is compliant or supportive of COVID prevention measures and that the Chinese COVID protests were done by a young minority. This would also mirror the experience during the 2002 – 2003 SARS outbreak, when people in Zhejiang province protested over the inability of the Chinese government to control the epidemic[xxxvi].

30 Years Ago Today
Toronto editions of Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily and Taiwan’s World Journal from June 5-7, 1989. Both Hong Kong and Taiwan enjoyed Western-style freedom including freedom of the press, which explains why such newspaper records exist. In China, the event of June 4 1989 is not mentioned anywhere. 
The headlines read:
“Bodies pile up in Beijing Massacre. A Hudred Thousand Dead or Wounded” ***
“Fierce fighting continues in Beijing’s east side, troops leave Tiananmen Square”
“U.S., Soviet Union, other countries evacuate their citizens from Beijing”
*** Because of the news blockade and dangerous conditions in Beijing, the very first reports initially said as many as 100,000 were killed or wounded, this was later corrected to as many as 20,000. The most credible estimates suggest between 2,000 and 8,000 casualties.

They would be slightly more alarmed by the calls for Xi Jinping to stand down, and the fact that protestors weren’t just from the middle-class student body but also involved worker protests as well[xxxvii]. However, one could argue that this is a coincidence rather than the cross-class unity[xxxviii]  that underpinned a succession of protests across China in 1989[xxxix] culminating in the June 4 massacre. 

[i] Huang, Y. (2004) “The SARS Epidemic and its Aftermath in China: a Political Perspective“. Institute of Medicine Forum on Microbial Threats, National Academies Press. United States

[ii] Burki, T. (8 October 2020). “China’s successful control of COVID-19”The Lancet Infectious Diseases. United Kingdom

[iii] Zhong, R. (27 January 2020). “As Virus Spreads, Anger Floods Chinese Social Media”The New York Times. United States

[iv] “China Concealed Extent of Virus Outbreak, U.S. Intelligence Says”Bloomberg. United States

[v] Cook, S. “Welcome to the New Era of Chinese Government Disinformation” United States

[vi] Johnson, CY. Cadell, C. Achenbach, J. (1 December 2022) “How China’s vaccine strategy stoked its looming ‘zero covid’ crisis“. The Washington Post. United States

[vii] MIHR Maudsley BRC (27 April 2020) “Depression and anxiety increase premature death by up to 134%”. King’s College London. United Kingdom

[viii] (21 April 2020). “Survey of UK nurses and midwives’ highlights their concerns about health, training and workload during COVID-19“. King’s College London. United Kingdom

[ix] Lau China Institute (28 July 2021) “China’s Digital Mental Health Services Outpacing Regulation“. King’s College London. United Kingdom

[x] Mao, F. (2 December 2022) “China protests: The young people powering the demonstrations“. BBC. United Kingdom

[xi] (Last updated 15 July 2022). “Mainland China”. Reuters COVID-19 tracker. United Kingdom

[xii] “Share of the elderly population vaccinated against COVID-19 in China as of March 17, 2022 by age group”.

[xiii] Xing, D. (18 March 2022) “Why are many Chinese elderly unvaccinated against COVID-19 when they’re a priority group in countries such as Australia?”. ABC News. Australia

[xiv] Baptista, E. Polard, MQ. (17 November 2022) “Analysis: Unmasked and in charge, China’s Xi puts personal diplomacy back in play”. Reuters. United Kingdom

[xv] Pollard, MQ. (24 November 2022) “For Chinese soccer fans, World Cup highlights COVID lockdown blues“. Reuters. United Kingdom

[xvi] Farrer, M. (19 September 2022) “Anger in China after 27 people killed in Covid quarantine bush crash“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xvii] (24 November 2022) “Foxconn Apologizes for Pay Dispute at China Factory“. Voice of America. United States

[xviii] Goh, B. Lee, Y. (24 November 2022) “Huge Foxconn iPhone plant in China rocked by fresh worker unrest“ Reuters. United Kingdom

[xix] (26 November 2022) “Apartment fire in China’s Xinjiang region kills 10“. Reuters. United Kingdom

[xx] Fallows, J. (13 July 2009) “On Uighurs, Han, and general racial attitudes in China“. The Atlantic. United States

[xxi] (1 December 2022) “What 1989 can teach us about the recent protests in China“. The Economist. United Kingdom

[xxii] (29 November 2022) “China Uses Police, Censors, Covid Easing to Stem Protests“. Bloomberg. United States

[xxiii] Davidson, H. (26 July 2021) “Foreign journalists harassed in China over floods coverage“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xxiv] Lam, O. (1 December 2022) “China’s foreign interference narrative fails to demonize the nationwide anti-zero COVID protests”. Stichting Global Voices. The Netherlands

[xxv] Davidson, H. Yu, V. (28 November 2022) “Chinese police out in force in attempt to deter Covid lockdown protests“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xxvi] (29 November 2022) “Chinese universities send students home in an effort to prevent more protests“ NPR Online. United States

[xxvii] (30 November 2022) “COVID protests escalate in Guangzhou as China lockdown anger boils“. EURACTIV Media Network. Belgium

[xxviii] (3 December 2022) “China continues lifting Covid restrictions despite near-record case numbers“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xxix] Graham-Harrison, E. (4 December 2022) “Fears of deadly infection surge as China abandons zero-Covid policy“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xxx] Hutton, M. (11 March 2022) “‘It is like we are being left to die’: Hong Kog tackles deadliest Covid wave“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xxxi] Cooper, A. Galambos, I. (28 October 2018) p: 345 – 375 “The Other Greek: An Introduction to Chinese and Japanese Characters, Their History and Influence“. BRILL. The Netherlands

[xxxii] Martina, M. Brunnstrom, D. (4 December 2022) “China’s Xi unwilling to accept western vaccines, U.S. official says“. Reuters. United Kingdom

[xxxiii] Milmo, D. (4 December 2022) “China accused of flooding social media with spam to crowd out protest news“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xxxiv] The Policy Institute (7 June 2020) “The UK is dividing as the lockdown is eased”. King’s College London. United Kingdom

[xxxv] Duffy, B, Allington, D. (27 April 2020) “The Accepting, the Suffering and the Resisting: the different reactions to life under lockdown“. King’s College London. United Kingdom

[xxxvi] Watts, J. (6 May 2003) “SARS sparks Chinese riots“. The Guardian. United Kingdom

[xxxvii] Kerrigan, A. (30 November 2022) “Five Factors to Watch as the Chinese Communist Party Faces Protests“. RAND Corporation. United States

[xxxviii] Chow, T. (4 June 2020) “The Forgotten Workers of Tiananmen Square“. The Nation. United States

[xxxix] Kuo, L. (2 June 2022) “China’s other Tiananmens: 30 years on“. The Guardian. United States