On Saturday night, protests swept around China’s cities and college campuses, showing growing discontent with the country’s strict COVID rules. The COVID regulations have restricted millions of people into their homes who are now angry at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leader, Xi Jinping. The wider protests resulted after an apartment fire in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang in western China, where ten people died and nine more were injured on November 24. The Urumqi fire deaths provoked numerous furious comments on social media over whether the three hours it took to put out the fire or the victims’ attempts to flee might have been hindered by barred doors or other anti-virus controls. The lockdown measures obstructed the fire department from reaching the residential building. The government has disputed the assertion made by many Chinese citizens who believe COVID restrictions prevented those victims from exiting their homes. Instead, Urumqi officials claim: “Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak.”
The residents of Urumqi, who have been locked down since August, protested peacefully on Friday night. The largest protests took place in Shanghai, where demonstrators gathered at Middle Urumqi Road holding flowers, candles, and placards that said, “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace.” Euronews reported that Shanghai police used pepper spray against the protesters. During the demonstrations, people demolished the barricades used to close neighbourhoods. Many protestors were holding blank sheets of paper, which has become a symbol of disobedience. More striking, the public was yelling for Xi Jinping and the Communist party to step down. As CCP often suppresses criticism, most online posts showing disagreement with the COVID rules were quickly deleted.
Chinese citizens praised China’s approach to COVID-19 management early in the pandemic since it reduced deaths when other nations were experiencing disastrous waves of infections. However, this year, the population lost patience as other countries, helped by vaccines, returned to normal, although the disease persisted. Many officials seem exhausted from years of enforcing the rigorous “zero-COVID” regulations. The policy restricts access to areas throughout the country to confine every case at a time. Due to this, China’s infection rate has remained lower than that of other nations. But as businesses shut down and families are trapped for weeks without access to food and medicine, CCP is receiving more and more criticism about the economic and human cost. Party leaders said they would ease quarantine and other regulations last month but insisted on maintaining “zero-COVID.”
Professor Chung Kim-wah, who formerly worked at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, argued that the unorganized demonstrations were not powerful enough to threaten the government. He claimed: “One needs to observe whether the anti-Xi slogans will spread, but Xi could shift the responsibility [to local authorities] as [the central government] can say it’s the local governments who have over-enforced.” The professor also added that demonstrators usually give in when minor improvements are made, making changes difficult.
The public outrage illustrates how Xi Jinping’s strict Covid regulations, which were initially hailed as a success for China, are becoming a liability. They have harmed small businesses like cafes, shops, and other establishments, worsening China’s economic recession. Analysts anticipate the protests worsening because the rules aren’t expected to be relaxed soon. In China, where the leader has increased crackdowns on criticism over the past ten years, it is uncommon to see people express their fury in public. Outside of nationalist outbursts like anti-Japanese rallies, it is nearly unheard of for protests to erupt over the same cause in various Chinese cities. The “zero-COVID” policy has proved unsustainable, and the CCP underestimated the public’s dissatisfaction towards it. It poses an enormous challenge for the ruling party, whose main goal is maintaining power. China’s efforts to uphold those regulations may be put to the test by the growing unrest. Furthermore, the government has put itself into a position from which there is no simple way out. It has had three years to develop a plan for reopening. Still, instead of constructing more hospitals and highlighting the importance of vaccinations, it has invested significant money in mass testing, confinement, and isolation facilities to win a war against an infection that may never go away.
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