PUBLIC protests are rare in China where the People’s Republic maintains order through a strict authoritarian code that frowns upon any display of dissent. However, the harsh Covid-19-related lockdowns, part of the ‘zero Covid’ policy, have apparently sparked a large number of demonstrations across China, crossing geographical boundaries. China’s measures to contain Covid are amongst the toughest in the world, and after several years of intermittent lockdowns and restrictions, people’s patience with the strict measures seems to be running thin. The trigger for the latest wave of protests appears to be a fire in the city of Urumqi which resulted in at least 10 deaths. According to the Western press — Chinese media has been silent over the protests — the tragedy was exacerbated by a reportedly inadequate response by officials, apparently due to the lockdowns in place. The Chinese state denies this was the case. Earlier in Zhengzhou, workers at an iPhone plant confronted police ostensibly due to harsh anti-Covid measures. The state has moved to remove all mention of the protests from social media, while as per foreign media, security agents are confronting those who attended the demonstrations.
While the zero Covid policy has been successful in keeping fatalities low, it has come at a high price, as people’s routines have been severely curtailed. It seems the Urumqi incident was the last straw, and the protests are a manifestation of pent-up frustration. In order to prevent the issue from flaring up, China should revisit its stringent anti-Covid measures; already, there are reports that officials are easing lockdowns, which is a welcome sign. Moreover, people need to be allowed to express their feelings, and using severe methods to quell protests may result in short-term peace, but long-term discontent with the state. While it would be naïve to assume China will allow the type of political freedom seen in the West, the leadership in Beijing should nonetheless listen to the people’s grievances, and not punish them for expressing themselves.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2022