A week ago, protesters took to the streets of the northwestern city of Urumqi to protest China’s tough measures zero-COVID policy. That night, a much bigger wave of protest hit Chinese social media, especially the super app WeChat. Users shared videos of the protesters and songs like “Do You Hear the People Sing” by MiserableBob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and Patti Smith’s “Power to the People”.
In the following days, the protests spread. A mostly masked crowd in Beijing’s Liangmaqiao district held up blank sheets of paper and called for an end to tough COVID policies. Throughout the city, at the elite Tsinghua University, protesters displayed printouts of a physical formula known as Friedman’s equation because its namesake sounds like “free man”. Similar scenes unfolded in cities and university campuses across China in a wave of protest that has been compared to the 1989 student movement that ended in a bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Unlike those previous protests, the demonstrations that have rocked China over the past week have been woven together and spread by smartphones and social media. The government of the country has tried to strike a balance between embracing technology And limit the power of citizens use it to protest or organize, building sweeping powers of censorship and surveillance. But last weekend, the momentum of China’s digital population and their frustration, courage and anger seemed to break free from government control. It took days for Chinese censorship and police to crack down on dissent on the internet and on city streets. By then, images and video of the protests had spread around the world, and Chinese citizens had demonstrated that they could maneuver around the Great Firewall and other controls.
“The atmosphere on WeChat was like nothing I had ever experienced before,” says a British citizen who has lived in Beijing for more than a decade, who asked not to be named to avoid scrutiny by Chinese authorities. “There seemed to be a recklessness and excitement in the air as people grew bolder and bolder with each post, each new person testing the government’s boundaries and their own.” He saw different posts than he had seen before on China’s tightly controlled Internet, such as a picture of a Xinjiang official with the blunt caption “Fuck you.”
Chinese netizens have developed an idea of what censors will and won’t allow, and many know how to evade certain controls on the Internet. But as the protests spread, younger WeChat users didn’t seem to care about the consequences of their posts, a Guangzhou technician told Wired, calling an encrypted app. Like other Chinese nationals quoted, he asked not to be named due to the danger of government attention. More experienced organizers have used encrypted apps like Telegram or shared on Western platforms, like Instagram and Chirpingto spread the word.
Anti-lockdown demonstrations began as unofficial vigils for victims of a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. The city had been under COVID lockdown restrictions for more than 100 days, which some observers believe are hampered victims trying to escape and slowed down emergency responders. Most, if not all, of the victims were members of the Uyghur ethnic minority, which was subjected to a forced assimilation campaign which he sent an esteemed one 1 to 2 million people in re-education camps.
The tragedy came as frustrations with zero-COVID policies were already starting to mount. Violent clashes had erupted among workers and security at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou that makes iPhones. Scott Kennedy, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC, says that when he visited Beijing and Shanghai in September and October, it was clear people had “got tired” of measures like regular PCR testing, QR scanning,” health codes” to go everywhere and the constant specter of a new lockdown. “I’m not surprised things boiled over,” says Kennedy. The government signaled in early November that some restrictions would soon be eased, but the fire in Urumqi and news that COVID cases were surging again, he says, “pushed people over the edge.”