Dissent In China Grows Over Covid-19 Policies

On November 24th, 2022, a fire in the Uyghur majority town of Ürümqi, Xinjiang, killed ten people and injured nine others. This raised additional questions of China’s strong enforcement of its zero-COVID policy, which could have prevented residents or firefighters from attending to the disaster. Since February of 2022 China had faced an unprecedented amount of Omicron-variant outbreaks, leading to strict lockdowns in Shenzhen, Shenyang, Jilin and Shanghai. There were reports of residents being forced to relocate after cases in their buildings, not being able to leave their homes, or being sealed in public facilities until all subjects were tested and cleared. By May, citizens in certain areas, despite being in low-risk zones, received notices that they could no longer leave their compounds. Other areas were disallowed from leaving their front doors or moved to other buildings for a full disinfection. Videos soon spread of police officers in hazmat suits taping up front doors to prevent residents from leaving. The intense measures toward a strict zero-COVID policy, coupled with the lack of clarity provided by officials, helped tensions brew throughout the months of national lockdown. Thus, many consider the November 24th Ürümqi fire a trigger for a series of protests across several cities that asks for an end to this one-part war and for general secretary Xi Jingping to step down.

The ongoing protests are called the White Paper Protests, and consisted of protestors using blank A-4 pieces of paper to symbolize censorship. This was also to avoid further censorship of the protests online. On November 27th, a demonstration at the Tsinghua University in Beijing included blank papers, grafitti, and even mathematical equations, specifically the Friedman Equation to allude to “Freed Man” and the eventual opening up of the university. On the same day, protestors at Liangma Bridge chanted “I want COVID tests” and “I want to scan my health code” so to also prevent online censorship. Despite these other similar efforts to spread word of protests online, the content was taken down by November 28th within Mainland China. However, by December 7th, the Chinese government reverted some of its strictest restrictions by allowing for home quarantines instead of being detained at specified sites, dropping negative test requirements to enter public spaces in certain areas, and reducing quarantine and testing requirements for international arrivals. While some of the most stringent measures were alleviated for the first time in months, heavy restrictions in comparison to the rest of the world still persist, including international quarantines, regular testing and narrower definitions for high-risk areas.

The persistence of harsh COVID-regulation can be linked to China’s authoritarian regime and desire to differentiate itself from Western thought, including the refusal of Western mRNA vaccines and pro-government responses claiming the students were pawns of “Western agents” and university students’ heads had been stuffed by “Western ideas.” Peter Hessler, an American journalist claims that there is a “general idea that the benefits of the Chinese system greatly outweigh its flaws.” In his interview with the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, he also argues that current discontent is reflective of structural flaws in the Chinese governmental system, stating that “there was a lot of good will in China up until this phase. And people also in China, they understood the mistakes in Wuhan. They’re used to local governments making mistakes. And that actually, I think, reinforced their faith in the central leadership, because once the policies came down from the top, they were effective. But this reflects, this issue in this system, which is that at the very top when you have a lot of authority vest in one person and you have a lot of fear around him, you lose some of that nimbleness.”

Though throughout the global pandemic China had been a model of authoritarian efficiency, the protests show how public trust has eroded in the face of now-seemingly draconian yet unnecessary measures. While in the face of epidemics there is often a tradeoff of individual rights and collective well-being that must be balanced, the feedback loop for dissent is censored and the supply of information is monopolized by the central government. However, as the Wall Street Journal states, we should not over-analyze these protests as a holistic reflection of China’s pandemic response. As Greg Ip writes, “a chaotic exit from zero Covid now doesn’t invalidate its success in prior years, or tell us anything about the durability of Mr. Xi’s autocratic system of governance. By the same token, just because the U.S. has achieved a relatively peaceful coexistence with the virus doesn’t vindicate its often chaotic response of 2020.”

Thus, China’s main concern moving forward is as follows: given unprecedented protests and public complaints about strict lockdowns, how does the government best respond? This likely requires the Chinese Communist Party, which historically has held power through censorship and autocracy, to become more flexible to changes in public sentiment. Though Beijing has already moved to soften certain policies, the phasing-out of Zero-COVID policies require balancing leniency without “losing face” as a central authority. To best prevent outbursts of violence, communication needs to be heavily improved between central power in Beijing, local governments, and citizens. Since current COVID measures are sporadic and information passed to citizens is few and far between, it is in every party’s best interest to develop clear steps and goals to exit COVID-zero. Beijing can communicate clear timelines, which unless in extreme cases, should be followed so as to prevent further erosion of trust. Furthermore, citizens also need to psychologically adjust to a less restrictive environment, especially those who are afraid of loosening policies. To achieve this, the central government must also set new expectations for acceptable infection rates. Overall, clear goal-setting and communication top-down is the most effective way to peacefully respond to current White Paper Protests given the history of China’s pandemic response and the structure of government.





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