PERSPECTIVE: “Perhaps more important than why we’re protesting is the fact that we want to tell everyone else that we can, and have the power to protest!”
In a country where it’s common for dissidents to be detained or harassed, inadvertently creating a culture of fear among the public that deters them from speaking out against the government, last weekend’s nationwide protests in China proved to be extremely rare.
We spoke to two Chinese nationals -- a university student in Shanghai, and a working professional in Guangzhou -- who told us why they either support the protests or took part in demonstrations in spite of the very real possibility that they might be arrested.
Xiao V (not her real name), aged 20, never thought that she would one day join a protest in China, where she grew up. After all, mass protests are rare and outlawed in the country.
But when she heard of the tragic fire that broke out in Urumqi city, Xinjiang, which killed 10 and injured nine – videos circulating online appeared to show residents trapped in the building, and also Covid barriers preventing fire trucks from getting close enough to administer help – she joined others in a series of protests that erupted across China since last weekend.
Urumqi fire the last straw that triggered protests
Currently a humanities student in a Shanghai university, Xiao V, who spoke to Mothership on account of anonymity for fear of reprisal from authorities, said she joined her schoolmates in a mass gathering to mourn the passing of the victims, and also to protest against the Chinese government’s stringent lockdown measures.
She shared that while the Chinese people were largely cooperative with lockdown regulations at the start of the pandemic, which resulted in China being one of the first countries to open up at a time when the rest of the world were beginning to shut their borders, various incidents that happened over the last few years prompted them to change their minds about the way the government has been handling the outbreak.
“All the tragedies that happened since the pandemic started, including the Guizhou bus crash, have stirred unhappiness among the people, but they could not express their resentment without getting into trouble with the authorities," she said.
She further explained that since the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) concluded without the government announcing an easing of Covid restrictions -- a series of 20 guidelines released days before that serve to ease the strict zero-Covid policy had raised anticipation -- many felt disappointed, and even a sense of despair about the country ever getting out of a seemingly endless rut of lockdowns.
"The Urumqi fire, however, was the last straw for many people," she said emphatically.
Xiao Juan (not her real name), a 23-year-old recent graduate who is now working in the customer service sector, echoed Xiao V’s sentiments, reiterating a mounting frustration towards the government’s enforcement of strict Covid-19 measures.
She too asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
Across the nation, protesters, mostly young students, held up blank pieces of paper as a show of defiance against the censorship laws the Chinese government has imposed.
While many gatherings, such as the one that took place at Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai, started as candlelight vigils, they later escalated into protests, with protesters even calling for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down.
上海乌鲁木齐路 最新视频— 李老师不是你老师 (@whyyoutouzhele) November 26, 2022
The last time a mass protest on this scale took place in China was more than 30 years ago when about 100,000 university students took to Tiananmen Square to demand the rehabilitation of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was ostracised by the party and forced to resign from his position.
The public mourning of Hu's death and display of anger lasted for weeks before ending in bloodshed when the military forcibly put an end to the protests.
Students encouraged to report one another
While a parallel could be found in the Tiananmen protests, Xiao V is of the opinion that the student protests that happened in the past week are different, given the dearth of mass protests in China since then.
In this modern era of digital tracking and surveillance, it is a lot more dangerous now for people to take part in such civil disobedience activities.
“We’re facing a massive, insurmountable force in the form of the CCP, and they have the technological tools on hand to decipher our identities. This makes all of us students very fearful,” she said.
“Since all universities in the country are now under the purview of the CCP, they are encouraging students to report their peers. One of my schoolmates was reported, and was punished. This makes everyone suspicious of one another, and prevents us from trusting others fully. Our moves are also captured by surveillance cameras everywhere, which makes it tough for us to meet up in person.”
When asked if students in her school will gather again, Xiao V doubted this would happen, unless a new development takes place.
This is due to the risks involved in taking part in such protests, even in school.
She shared that teachers in her school started to call students in for questioning after their mass gathering, herself included.
“They told us not to speak up, and even hinted that someone in the school management is getting punished for this. They also said such activities are meaningless,” Xiao V said, adding that she’s “not afraid” of being questioned, and that she almost quarrelled with the teacher over this.
“The teacher who questioned me said that since we, the students, organised this by ourselves, they, as teachers, can do what they want with us, and we have no right to interfere. I think this is inhumane.”
Learning from Hong Kong protesters
Xiao V also shared that before going into the teacher’s office, she switched to a locked mode on her smartphone so that whoever searches her device can only see a blank space with nothing on it. This is just one of several tactics used by protesters, some of whom, perhaps rather surprisingly, are learning from the tactics used by Hong Kong protesters back in 2019.
“The tips they gave are really helpful. For instance, wearing masks and caps to conceal our identities, keep close to one another in a group, only use cash and not credit cards to not leave behind any digital trace, and when asked by the police who’s the organiser, we’ll all answer ‘it’s me’ so they can’t tell us apart,” she said.
“The goal is to ‘be water’, which is to proceed organically depending on the situation, and adapt according to the changing circumstance, like the fluidity of water.”
Shanghai police conducting random checks on residents
Police, who have been mobilised in greater numbers along Wulumuqi Road, have reportedly conducted random checks on residents and demanded to check their phones for material they deem to be anti-government.
今晚 上海地铁 民警正在挨个查手机 pic.twitter.com/QqiS9uBmoP— 李老师不是你老师 (@whyyoutouzhele) November 29, 2022
This was verified by one of Xiao V’s friends, Simon (not his real name), who took part in the protest on Wulumuqi Road.
According to him, police officers were making their patrols in plain clothes, which made it hard for protesters to evade them.
He added that even if sensitive material is not found, regular people can get into trouble if their phones were found to contain foreign applications, such as Telegram, Twitter and YouTube.
“These methods used by the police have worked to some extent, and some people are indeed scared off from joining in any sort of protest activity.”
Arrests have been made in public as well, with a man in Shanghai getting arrested after he held up a bouquet of flowers in a show of defiance.
上海，乌鲁木齐路与安福路路口— 李老师不是你老师 (@whyyoutouzhele) November 27, 2022
A female student, Li Kangmeng, who held up a blank sheet of paper at the Communication University of China in Nanjing, is still under detention as of Dec. 2 since her arrest on Nov. 30, sparking fears among others about her safety.
As for Xiao Juan, although she was unable to take part in the Guangzhou protests as her building was under lockdown, she shared that she would have joined the protests if she could.
She said: “Watching the protests, I felt validated, like finally, someone in our midst had made clear what we were all feeling. Previously, there have never been protests on such a scale before.”
She also thinks that the police crackdown on the protests are uncalled for, given that protesters have been largely peaceful in expressing their discontent.
It feels "suffocating" to see so many police officers being sent out to "suppress the people", she added.
“The police are supposed to serve the people, but now they are used as a tool to silence them instead.”
Determined to continue their resistance despite difficulties
Despite the risk of getting arrested and detained, Xiao V is adamant on resisting the CCP using whatever means she has while striving to remain safe, such as speaking to the foreign media.
When a junior schoolmate recently confided in her, saying she felt “discouraged”, Xiao V told her that “courage needs to be honed”.
“Because we’ve been silenced for a long time, and because we’ve never been taught that we have a right to freedom and democracy, many of us remain quiet, even though there’s a chance for us to express our demands now. But I believe that with each time we voice our demands, it gets easier to do so.”
Xiao V's determination to resist the CCP remains strong despite disapproval from her parents, who are both government officials.
Since the Covid outbreak, they have been mobilised to work as PCR testers, whom disgruntled Chinese refer to as "Big White", named after the white PPE they are clad in.
"Their jobs and status in society depend on their commitment to working for the state," she said. "As such, they remain loyal to the CCP."
"They criticised me in front of others for having radical thoughts, and tried to convert me. My parents and I are very divided. Sometimes, I do feel an immense sense of isolation."
She also shared that while some older Chinese still remember the Tiananmen protests back in 1989 and the subsequent violent crackdown by the authorities, this does not mean they are supportive of the recent protests.
It is precisely because they remember "the painful outcome", that they disapprove of what young protesters are doing now, she explained.
Some Chinese slowly coming around
Xiao V, however, clarified that not all young protesters were fighting for the same goals -- most took to the streets out of sheer frustration at the restrictive Covid measures which seem to go on indefinitely, not because they are aiming specifically for broader liberal rights in the country.
Nevertheless, she shared that a friend had recently come around to the discrepancies in China’s zero-Covid narrative, after watching the ongoing World Cup.
“He realised the rest of the world was longer wearing masks," she said with a laugh.
“Just one month ago, no one in China would have thought that protests of such magnitude could have occurred. But the protests have since gained so much traction, and went beyond what we thought was possible."
For now, the Chinese government appears to be using a carrot-and-stick approach in order to regain control over the situation, and get citizens to toe the line.
In Guangzhou, which announced the relaxing of Covid measures less than 24 hours following the mass protests, Xiao Juan confirms that most Covid restrictions have been lifted, including PCR testings -- a major victory in her eyes.
"This shows that the protests are effective, and that the government can't ignore the people's demands, not especially if they are from an overwhelming segment of the population," she said.
"They appear to be more afraid of us than before."
But there are still reports of local authorities continuing the hunt for protesters and cracking down on VPNs and other methods of bypassing online censorship, reported The Guardian.
Future of China's zero-Covid policy
Nevertheless, Xiao Juan shared that although she celebrates the lifting of restrictions in her city and is happy about it, she remains cautious about whether this will last.
“Time will tell. Previously, Shijiazhuang city [in the Hebei province] had suddenly lifted Covid restrictions, but not long after that, they re-entered a snap lockdown," she said.
The easing of Covid measures in some cities may be the result of a shift in the official stance on the country's zero-Covid response.
Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees Covid efforts, told a meeting of frontline experts on Wednesday (Nov. 30) that efforts to combat the virus were entering a new phase as "the Omicron variant was weakening in its ability to cause disease, allowing China to improve prevention efforts", Xinhua reported.
It was also noted that the Chinese central government has not mentioned "dynamic zero-Covid" in three consecutive occasions and documents since the start of this week.
Sources told Reuters that China is set to announce an easing of its Covid quarantine protocols in the coming days and a reduction in mass testing.
Xi also reportedly told European Council President Charles Michel on Dec. 1 that the less-lethal omicron variant is now the prevalent Covid-19 strain in China, marking the first time the Chinese leader has publicly acknowledged that the virus is weakening, according to Bloomberg.
Regardless of China's future course with the virus, both Xiao V and Xiao Juan are of the opinion that they would "rise up" with others should the government continue implementing policies that harm the people.
"It's my duty to take part in any future protest as I've seen too much suffering and bloodshed to not do anything," Xiao Juan said.
As for Xiao V, she personally thinks that the purpose of protests is to send a message to the government that ordinary citizens are not to be trifled with.
“Perhaps more important than why we’re protesting is the fact that we want to tell everyone else that we can, and have the power to protest!
With our actions, we have shown everyone else that as long as we take this important first step, we can potentially change history, no matter how impossible it seems."
Top images via Twitter @huizhong_wu and @whyyoutouzhele