When the Chinese people saw images of maskless fans enjoying the World Cup, they asked why the rest of the world had moved on while they were still cooped up in their tiny apartments like animals, bored and hungry (Chinese censors reportedly stopped showing images of fans during World Cup broadcasts).
This is while something extraordinary is happening in China: Residents in multiple cities, at significant personal risk, took to the streets over the weekend to demand an end to the government’s draconian “zero Covid” policy. These protests have quickly spread nationwide and become venues for the Chinese people to express their dissatisfaction with China’s leader Xi Jinping. Many protesters held blank sheets of paper as a symbol of lacking free speech under Beijing’s censorship (hence, the nickname “Paper Revolution”). Some even openly called for Xi to resign.
Xi’s most prominent concern has always been that a color revolution (a term that describes anti-government movements) might take place in China and topple his and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule. Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi has built a high-tech surveillance state to monitor 1.4 billion Chinese people’s thoughts and behaviors while ruthlessly suppressing dissenters.
Xi’s intimidation seemed to have worked. While some small and isolated protests, mostly over environmental issues or economic grievances, took place in China during the first 10 years of his rule, China hadn’t experienced any large-scale protests nationwide that directly challenged the CCP and Xi personally until now. Xi has no one but himself to blame for sparking China’s “Paper Revolution” and jeopardizing his third term and beyond.
Series of Tragedies Under Lockdown
A deadly fire in a high-rise apartment in Xinjiang initially triggered the weekend protests. In the same region, the CCP has been accused of subjecting millions of Uyghur Muslims to genocide. Videos spread of victims desperately crying for help from the apartment building, but people could not escape nor rescuers enter because the entrance was sealed, a common lockdown measure imposed by local authorities. It took fire trucks more than two hours to reach the burning building, again, due to the barriers set up by local authorities to keep people confined inside their apartments. Since the early days of the Covid outbreak in 2020, Chinese authorities have routinely sealed the front entrances of entire apartment buildings or barricaded residential communities to enforce lockdowns.
The deadly fire in Xinjiang is sadly one of a long string of tragedies caused by the government’s inhumane Covid restrictions. Several other incidents have drawn national outcries this year alone. In January, a woman who was eight months pregnant in Xi’an lost her baby after local hospitals refused to treat her because her Covid test had expired by a few hours. During Shanghai lockdowns between March and April, children as young as newborns were taken away from their parents and committed to poorly run government daycare facilities. Residents also experienced severe food shortages unheard of since the Great Chinese famine (1959-1961).
Last month, a woman in Beijing, the capital of China, who was welded into her apartment for days, jumped to her death from her apartment building. The audio of her daughter from days before, “banging on the gate and begging community workers to unseal her mother’s door and help her,” went viral on China’s social media before censors took it down, the Daily Mail reported.
These heartbreaking incidents represent the human toll caused by the Chinese government’s cruel “zero Covid” policy. The Chinese people have experienced many pent-up fears, frustrations, and furies for the last three years. They are afraid that such tragedies will happen to them or their families, and they desperately want to avoid becoming the next victims. They are frustrated that their suffering has not “defeated” Covid as Beijing promised. On the contrary, China has recently reported a record number of Covid infections. The Chinese people are also furious Xi made it clear during his most recent speech at the 20th Party Congress that his “zero Covid” approach is here to stay.
Many Have Had Enough
Many Chinese have had enough, and the deadly fire incident in Xinjiang became the last straw. They decided to take a stand, regardless of possible consequences (in China, those who participate in protests usually are imprisoned) because, after three years of hardship, many felt they had nothing more to lose.
Judging by the slogans protesters chanted, last weekend’s protests were against more than the government’s Covid restrictions. People are dissatisfied with Xi’s economic policies too. Xi’s ideological war on China’s private businesses and Chinese entrepreneurs, his tit-for-tat trade war with then-President Donald Trump, and the three-year lockdowns have caused China’s economic growth to significantly slow down, depressed some sectors such as the property market, and pushed up unemployment rates, especially among the young. The lockdowns also drained many people’s savings since they couldn’t go to work.
Huge Sex Trafficking Problem
Besides economic issues, the Chinese people are concerned about their safety and the government’s corruption. In February this year, right around the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, news of a woman in Xuzhou, China, being found locked up in a doorless animal hut in freezing temperatures, sparked a national uproar. Local police and government officials claimed she had mental health issues, and they didn’t know about her situation until the news broke out. But it turned out the woman was a victim of sex trafficking and had endured her husband’s abuses for years. Under public pressure, local authorities arrested a few human traffickers but held no one else accountable. Censors scrubbed the internet to prevent any discussion related to this case and sex trafficking in general.
The government had underestimated the public furor. Sex trafficking is a massive problem in China, where men outnumber women by 32 million due to China’s cruel “one child” policy from 1979 to 2015. Desperate Chinese men, especially those living in rural China, have resorted to trafficking women from other parts of China or neighboring countries to be their brides. Sometimes brothers or even fathers and sons from the same families would share a bride. Often, human traffickers and those families who “purchased” brides bribed local police and officials not to intervene.
Perhaps the Beginning of the End
Many Chinese demanded to know how China claims to be a superpower yet fails to protect its most vulnerable citizens; what’s the real purpose of all these surveillance tools if not to stop crimes; why there is no accountability for government officials; and why citizens aren’t even allowed to share their concerns on social media.
Xi and the CCP seem to forget that the Chinese people only accepted fewer rights and more political oppression provided the party would deliver safety and prosperity. Yet more and more people feel neither safe nor prosperous under Xi’s rule. The demonstrations were the last resort for people to express their discontent and demand accountability.
What made these protests even more remarkable was that they were leaderless. Unlike the 1989 pro-democracy movement, no single group or national figure led last week’s demonstrations. Protests erupted in multiple cities in China organically and even spilled over to foreign soils — Chinese students at several American universities, including Columbia University, staged their anti-Xi demonstrations.
Unfortunately, Xi will survive this crisis of his own making and remain in power. The Chinese government is reportedly taking action to crack down on demonstrators. But China’s “paper revolution” shows Xi has no firm control of the nation and its people. The “Paper Revolution” will not end the CCP’s authoritarian rule in China. Still, it is likely the beginning of the end of the CCP if Xi continues to forge ahead with his destructive policies.