From Beijing to Shanghai, demonstrations erupted in major cities across China over the weekend, with protesters voicing their dissatisfaction with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) draconian “zero Covid” policies. The protests mark a rare occurrence in a nation where basic civil rights are routinely suppressed by China’s authoritarian government.
The protests erupted after the deaths of 10 people in an apartment building fire in the city of Urumqi, the capital of the western region of China known as Xinjiang. According to The New York Times, it took authorities three hours to fully extinguish the flames, leading many on Chinese social media to criticize the CCP’s “zero Covid” approach and citizens throughout Xinjiang to take to the streets.
The backlash to the government’s handling of the incident spread throughout the country, leading to protests in some of China’s biggest population hubs. In the capital of Beijing, residents generated multiple, small-scale protests throughout the city on Saturday, with participants reportedly shouting phrases such as “End the lockdown.” Larger demonstrations against the CCP’s “zero Covid” strategy were also seen in Shanghai, where citizens with candles and flowers called for Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and the ruling CCP to “step down” from leadership and for a reversal of the city’s heavy-handed Covid restrictions.
“These people have been languishing under Covid Zero policies … for almost three years now and they’re tired of it,” Steven Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute and a notable authority on Chinese affairs, told The Federalist. “They’re also suffering because the promise of the Chinese Communist Party, that China was going to be in the first rank of nations and that people in China were going to enjoy a standard of living equivalent to what we enjoy in the United States and the West, has turned out to be false.”
The nationwide protests have since been collectively called the “White Paper Revolution,” in reference to the blank sheets of white paper being used as a symbol of defiance by many of the gatherings’ participants.
Many Chinese youths are notably participating in the demonstrations. On Sunday, for instance, hundreds of students rallied at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, singing the Chinese national anthem and chanting phrases such as, “Freedom will prevail,” and, “No to lockdowns, we want freedom.” Student protests have also been reported at numerous other universities throughout China.
According to Mosher, this stems from a growing view among Chinese youths that life under an increasingly dictatorial Xi, combined with accretive economic challenges (such as high unemployment), does not bode well for their future prospects.
“The chants range all the way from ‘End Covid’ to ‘Get rid of the traitor Xi Jinping,’ so you’ve got a pretty broad swath there [ranging] from a very narrow complaint about a specific government policy to a complaint about the Chinese Communist Party and its leader,” Mosher said.
How Are Xi and the CCP Responding?
As expected, Xi and government authorities have resorted to brutal force to break up the largely peaceful demonstrations. On Sunday, police violently removed protesters in Shanghai, with CBS News reporting incidents of demonstrators being dragged into vans and pepper sprayed. Police in major cities such as Beijing have also been tasked with stopping and searching the phones of citizens found at protest sites to check if they have been using illegal social media apps and virtual private networks.
According to Mosher, given the authoritarian nature of Xi and the CCP, it remains plausible that the former will “use as much force as he needs to put down the demonstrations,” adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if the ongoing protests “end in bloodshed.”
“China actually spends more money on internal security than it does on its external military buildup, which is quite an astonishing fact, but tells you the kind of police state we’re talking about,” Mosher said. “I don’t think anybody in the [People’s Liberation Army] or the People’s Armed Police will oppose [Xi] because he’s basically fired or charged with corruption any high-level officials who have opposed his rule over the last 10 years. So, he’s pretty much in charge in China.”
The increased crackdown by government authorities has not been exclusive to Chinese citizens, however. While reporting on the protests in Shanghai, BBC News journalist Ed Lawrence was beaten and detained by Chinese police before being released a few hours later. The Chinese government has since offered a myriad of excuses for the incident, ranging from claims that Lawrence was arrested “for his own good in case he caught COVID from the crowd” to assertions that he “did not identify himself as a journalist and didn’t voluntarily present his press credentials.”
Joe Biden’s Muted Response
As of this article’s publication, the response to the ongoing protests from President Joe Biden and his administration has been largely mute. While Biden himself has yet to issue a public statement about the matter, the reaction from administration officials such as National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has been just as dismissive.
When asked during a White House press briefing on Monday about Biden’s reaction to hearing Chinese protesters shout “freedom” or “Xi Jinping step down,” Kirby deflected by saying, “The president’s not going to speak for protesters,” and that the “protesters are speaking for themselves.”
Kirby’s refusal to publicly back the protesters’ fight for freedom mirrors a statement from a National Security Council official provided to Politico, which claimed that the Biden administration is not pursuing a “zero COVID” strategy in the U.S. and that they are focused on enhancing “vaccination rates, including boosters and making testing and treatment easily accessible.”
“We should be saying to China’s leaders, that if you open fire on peaceful crowds of demonstrators, you will lose your assets in the United States,” said Mosher. “We will confiscate your assets [just] as we confiscated the yachts of the Russian oligarchs. We will send Chinese students [studying in the U.S.] home in large numbers. … We will decouple from China’s economy at an even faster rate.”
“There are things we should be saying right now, and all the White House is saying is ‘Increase your vaccination rate and don’t forget your second or third booster.’ It’s just ridiculous,” he added.