Why protests in China have the world paying attention

Story by CBC Kids News • Published 2022-12-01 09:34
UPDATE: On Dec.1, several major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shijiazhuang among others, eased some COVID-19 restrictions in response to the protests. 

Protests rare due to danger of opposing Chinese government


After nearly three years of super restrictive measures to combat COVID-19, frustration among people across China has reached a boiling point.

Since last week, protestors in at least 12 Chinese cities have been demanding an end to strict COVID-19 restrictions, with some even demanding that China’s President, Xi Jinping, resign.

The protests have caught the world’s attention, as widespread public protests in China are rare.

What led to the uprising

While many of us in Canada have moved closer to our pre-pandemic lives, like seeing friends indoors and playing sports, the situation in China is very different.

While the government there has loosened some restrictions, it maintains a zero-COVID policy aimed at keeping the number of infections as close to zero as possible.

People in China still face lockdowns, daily testing and other COVID-19 measures.

For example, one positive case might mean an entire apartment building, or even an entire city in some cases, is locked down.

A group of commuters in China all wera maks while riding their bikes

In China, people have to wear masks in public venues. (Image credit: Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)

“They keep doing it, even though it’s clear that zero-COVID isn’t working anymore,” said Mary Gallagher, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on Chinese politics.

She said the zero-COVID strategy started to fail when more contagious variants, like Omicron, emerged.

Now, after nearly three years of these strict pandemic rules, people are fed up.

“People in China were really shocked this last week that the World Cup was happening and [they] saw these huge audiences having fun without masks, because in China, you still have to wear a mask wherever you go,” she said.

“They really want to go back to living a normal life again.”

Residents undergo COVID-19 testing at a residential area under lockdown in Beijing last week. (Image credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

So why doesn’t China loosen restrictions like the rest of the world?

According to Gallagher, China has put a lot of emphasis on their zero-COVID strategy and not enough on preparing their population to open back up.

For example, China's vaccines haven't shown to be as effective against new COVID variants when compared to some of the vaccines used elsewhere in the world.

On top of that, Gallagher said the country’s health-care system isn’t as strong as in Canada and the U.S., and they have much lower vaccination rates among older people, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“They’re very proud of the low death rate, and they know that if China opens up, they’ll experience a huge death toll … They don’t want to look like they’re wrong,” said Gallagher.

How anger turned to protest

Amid this building anger, on Nov. 24, a fire broke out in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi, in China’s northwest, killing at least 10 people.

Lockdown measures meant some people in Urumqi were unable to leave their homes for months.

Some of the protesters blamed those restrictions for firefighters being unable to reach the burning building.

The government denied this, but outrage over the fire has caused people to hit the streets in protest.

Protesters and police square off at a demonstration in Shanghai on Nov. 27. (Image credit: Casey Hall/Reuters)

Why are these protests capturing the world’s attention?

Unlike Canada, China is not a democracy.

It’s what’s called an authoritarian state, where there are no national elections.

Leaders are chosen from within the Chinese Communist Party rather than voted in by the people.

Chinese protestors hold blank signs overhead.

There is heavy censorship in China around what you can and can’t say. Protesters have been holding up blank sheets of paper to send a message to China’s government while avoiding the risk of sharing their thoughts more directly. (Image credit: Josh Horwitz/Reuters)

Since Chinese citizens don’t have the option to vote in a new party that could make change, Gallagher said that protesting is really the only option to make their voices heard.

But there are huge risks to protesting, which is why widespread protest in China is so rare, and why the current protests have captured the world’s attention.

“This is extraordinarily risky.… People can be imprisoned for years if they want to challenge the party’s rule,” Yaqiu Wang, of Human Rights Watch, told CBC Radio’s As It Happens.

In 1989, for example, hundreds of Chinese protesters were killed by the military in a fight for democracy as part of the Tiananmen Square protests.

How is the government reacting?

Chinese authorities have been using pepper spray and other methods to drive away protesters, and dozens have been detained.

A man is arrested at a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Shanghai on Nov. 27. (Image credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Government censors are trying to keep citizens from seeing videos and messages online about the protests.

Residents say large amounts of police have hit the streets in areas of possible protests and have confiscated phones to check for apps like Twitter, which have been banned by China’s government.

What’s next?

Gallagher and other experts say we are likely to see a gradual disappearance of the protests due to government crackdowns in the coming months. 

Karen Woods, co-founder of the Canadian Chinese Political Affairs Committee, said “as far as this round of protests, this is pretty much it.”

“Police have set up roadblocks, barbed wire. It’s just far more difficult for protesters to gather,” she told CBC News.

According to Gallagher, future protests will depend on how China treats their zero-COVID strategy moving forward — whether they drop it and find other solutions, or maintain it and risk more dissent among their people.

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With files from CBC’s As It Happens, CBC News, Reuters, The Associated Press

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