“It’s all about to start”: a rare public protest in China

The demonstrations against the extreme corona restrictions in China spread today (Sunday) to other cities, including the city that is considered the Chinese economic center – Shanghai. After almost three years of a zero corona policy to contain the epidemic, a new wave of anger and protest is arising in China.One of the main reasons for the new protest is a fire that broke out over the weekend in a high-rise building in the city of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. According to evidence from the city, the residents were unable to escape the fire in time because the building was locked to isolate the corona patients – which led to public outrage and the beginning of protests. In a number of cities in the country, including Beijing and Nanjing, citizens turned out for spontaneous candle-lighting ceremonies in memory of Urumqi victims who perished in the fire.

The wave, defined as “civil disobedience”, is unprecedented in China and a test for President Xi Jinping who has not seen such protests since he came to power a decade ago. In Shanghai, the country’s most populous city, residents gathered on Saturday night to light candles – and this morning the gathering turned into a protest. The demonstrators held up blank sheets of paper – as a symbol of protest against censorship and shouted: “Remove the closures in China” and “Enough with the Chinese Communist Party, enough with Xi Jinping’s rule.”

China Digital Times, a news website operating in the US, reported that protests broke out in the academies, where users began writing on social media “What happened tonight is like a light in the dark,” read one post that was quickly censored – “It’s all about to start,” another wrote: “I love you young people. You have fire in you.”

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The public demands relief, the administration insists: we will continue with the same policy

The Chinese government adheres to the zero-corona policy even when most of the world is trying to live and manage a routine at the same time as the outbreaks of the virus. Although they are relatively low by global standards, in China the number of cases has reached a peak over the past few days, with nearly 40,000 new infections identified on Saturday.

Xi Jinping claims that the Chinese policy is life-saving and necessary to prevent the health system from collapsing. The administration intends to continue with the extreme policy, despite the growing public demand for relief – and despite the heavy price this is exacting from the second largest economy in the world.

However, the protest is apparently beginning to show its signs – this morning, officials in Xinjiang Province announced that public transportation services will gradually resume starting tomorrow in the city of Urumqi, many of whose 4 million residents are under one of the longest lockdowns and restrictions China has ever seen. The city’s residents have been banned from leaving their homes for over 3 months. The secretary of the Communist Party of Xinjiang, Ma Xingrui, called for increased security and curbing the “violent and illegal attempt to oppose the measures designed to prevent the spread of the corona.”

“will put serious pressure on the party to respond”

This is a public protest that is considered very rare in China, the leader Xi persecutes the opponents mercilessly and the citizens’ protests are mainly heard on social media – where the government usually censors their words. Citizens’ frustration has been growing recently, especially after Xi Jinping secured a third term as the head of the Chinese Communist Party. “This will put serious pressure on the party to respond and there is a good chance that the response will be repression, they will certainly arrest and prosecute some protesters,” assessed Dan Mattingly, an expert on Chinese affairs and a professor of political science at Yale University.

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However, according to him, the protest is still far from what was seen in 1989 – when the demonstrations culminated in bloodshed in Tiananmen Square. “As long as there is no split in the elite and as long as the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) and the security services remain on the president’s side, he does not face any significant risk to his hold on power,” Mattingly added.

“The next few weeks may be the worst weeks for the economy and the health system in China since the start of the corona epidemic,” estimates Mark Williams from Capital Economics in the city of Lanzhou in northwestern China.

In the incident that happened yesterday, residents overturned the tents of the corona teams and smashed the test chambers. According to the protesters’ claims on social media, they were quarantined even though none of them tested positive for the corona virus. In videos from Shanghai, crowds were seen standing in front of the police and chanting “serve the people”, “we want freedom” and “we don’t want health codes” (referring to codes that appear in mobile phone applications that allow entry into public places throughout China).

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