As It Happens·Q&A

Chinese protests have human rights advocate feeling inspired, yet terrified

Human rights advocate Yaqiu Wang has mixed feelings about the protests unfolding across China. She spoke to As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch says this may be the biggest Chinese uprising since Tiananmen Square

Protesters in the street at night hold blank pieces of paper. One person is shouting into megaphone and another is holding both hands above their head and shouting.
Protesters shout slogans during a protest against China's strict zero-COVID measures in Beijing on Monday. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Human rights advocate Yaqiu Wang has mixed feelings about the protests unfolding across China.

On the one hand, she says she's inspired by the people marching in the streets and standing up to the government at great personal risk. On the other, she worries that because of government censorship, the younger protesters don't know just how brutal China can be when it comes to cracking down on dissent.

The protests began on Friday after an apartment fire killed at least 10 in the city of Urumqi. Demonstrators blame the deaths on China's strict zero-COVID restrictions, claiming locked doors hampered efforts to fight or escape the flames — a charge Urumqi officials have denied.

Soon, the demonstrations spread to other cities, where protesters have been calling for an end to the COVID restrictions, as well as demanding broader reforms and freedoms.

Wang, the senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, has been watching the movement unfold from New York. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

How big a risk are people taking to join in these demonstrations we're seeing in China?

Very, very big risk, especially now. People are not only calling for the end of the abusive zero-COVID policy; people are calling for freedom, for human rights, for democracy, and for President Xi [Jinping] to step down — for the end of a Communist Party rule. 

This is extraordinarily risky. The government would not tolerate any kind of challenge to its rule. People can be imprisoned for years if they want to challenge the party's rule.

WATCH | Protesters demand Chinese president step down:

Given China's strict controls over social media, how is word spreading? Is it just word of mouth at this point?

I'm monitoring the Chinese social media [platforms] Weibo and WeChat, and lots of posts get removed, accounts get suspended, and it's very hard to search the videos on social media platforms because they tweak the search engine.

COVID-19 lockdown protest spreads to more Chinese cities

2 months ago
Duration 5:06
Protests against COVID-19 lockdowns have erupted across China after a fire killed at least 10 in the city of Urumqi. Demonstrators are calling for President Xi Jinping to resign.

Despite that, you know, people still get the message. And some people are getting messages by circumventing Chinese censorship. They're getting the information from Twitter and probably from CBC, too.

How unprecedented is this? When was the last time we saw this level of unrest and expression of frustration with the government and major companies like this?

I would say this kind of nationwide demand for democracy and human rights, I haven't seen it since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Of course, there were protests happening in the past 40 years. But usually they are confined to one location ... and usually it's about some specific issue … but this time it's nationwide protests demanding for freedom. It's really unprecedented.

And it started, of course, with this fatal apartment fire. But it's not a single, you know, sort of a movement driven by one idea or one frustration. What else is playing into these frustrations and these decisions to take such drastic actions?

It was triggered by COVID restrictions. But people also have grievances because of censorship, because of the loss of a job as a result of the COVID restrictions.

People feel they don't live with dignity, even if you're a middle class person in Shanghai with [a] car and apartment. So there are a combination of material grievances, plus, you know, the feeling of not having rights, not having dignity. And the feelings have been pent up for three years. Now they're erupting.

As part of the zero-Covid strategy, the government set up … what they're calling closed-loop factories, where shifts within a factory would travel to work together, work together, eat together, go back home and live together while they were on that shift.

And I was reading somewhere that … having all of those workers together for all that time led to more organization, and more frustrations boiling over amongst those workers. What role have those closed-loop factories played in leading to this moment?

People were able to communicate in a more intimate way, right? If you are confined in one factory, you're talking to the person face-to-face. 

There [is] a lot of surveillance over Chinese social media. But now because you are confined to a space, you feel a degree of freedom to talk to each other.

We're all social animals. We build connections and solidarities in those circumstances. So people, you know, feel they trust each other more. They feel we can do something together. People inspire each other. People encourage each other.

A group of people holding blank sheets of paper in front of their faces.
People in Hong Kong hold sheets of blank paper, a symbol of the protest against COVID restrictions. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Walk us through how the government has been responding?

In Shanghai, we saw police took away protesters and stuffed them in a police vehicle. We saw the government censoring information on the Chinese internet that are related to the protests.

But we have not seen, I would say, a co-ordinated or organized message from the very top in terms of how to deal with these protests. I think the government is still thinking about it and they're still deliberating how to respond to this.

I wish [for] more international media attention. I wish [for] more foreign governments' attention. I wish people and organizations and the governments outside of China [would send] a message to the Chinese government: Do not harm the protesters. Do not crackdown on the protests. If you do that, there will be repercussions.

This message needs to be sent to the Chinese government.

If these demonstrations do continue, how high does the risk get of a more brutal crackdown? How worried are you?

I'm very worried. I'm terrified, especially for our young people. Our young people in China do not know the Tiananmen massacre happened, because of government censorship. So they didn't know the history. They do not know that the government once was so brutal to its own people, to the young people in the country, [it] literally sent out tanks to row run over people's bodies. 

I'm [also] so inspired by them. I feel just mixed feelings about the situation. I support them, whatever they want to do.

With files from Reuters. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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