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People hold white sheets of paper in protest over coronavirus disease restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of COVID-19 continue, in Beijing, China, November 27, 2022.THOMAS PETER/Reuters

As growing frustration over COVID-19 restrictions and other issues spilled over into protests in more than a dozen Chinese cities this weekend, videos and photos of the unrest spread widely online as the country’s internet censors struggled to keep up – a rare show of weakness.

Protests are not unheard of in China. Despite the Communist Party’s reputation for absolute control, workers still go on strike, farmers demonstrate over land use and local officials are called out for corruption. There have been almost 700 incidents of labour unrest this year alone, according to a database kept by China Labour Bulletin, which does not track other types of protest.

But the common elements of such incidents are that they are almost always geographically isolated, swiftly put down and tightly censored. One of the primary goals of the Great Firewall – China’s vast online censorship and surveillance apparatus – is to prevent protests by stamping out calls for demonstrations and suppressing news of any unrest that does bubble up.

Its motivation is a desire to avoid a repeat of the events of May and June, 1989, which, while generally associated with Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, involved protests in cities across the country, the most concerted challenge to the Chinese Communist Party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China 50 years earlier.

Chinese police beat BBC journalist covering COVID-19 protests

Even as sporadic unrest has continued in the decades since, the only truly nationwide movements have been ones tacitly approved of by the government, such as the anti-Japanese protests that broke out in 2005 and 2012, or mainly took place online, as with demands to tackle air pollution in the early 2010s.

Throughout, censors have been on the lookout for anything that could tip over into a larger movement – one outside the official party system. This has involved cracking down on groups nominally in line with party policies, such as feminists and Marxist student organizations, but even non-political movements, such as fans of an online humour site who began getting together offline.

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Chinese policemen form a line to stop protesters marching in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

Under President Xi Jinping, the space for political freedom in China has shrunk dramatically, and authorities have cracked down ever harder on signs of unrest. In Xinjiang and other ethnic-minority areas, the repression has often been particularly brutal, but Han Chinese dissidents have not been spared, with many jailed for decades or kept under indefinite house arrest.

This has been effective, and even as Mr. Xi has consolidated more and more power, securing an unprecedented third term as Communist Party leader, little dissent has been on display, despite reports of purported anger within the party and small protests by Chinese nationals overseas.

But the tranquillity on the surface has hidden growing frustration, and with the pandemic testing the limits of government control, this has begun to bubble up.

Unlike anger over the treatment of workers or land rights, COVID-19 is something that affects everyone in China more or less equally. When Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who had been arrested for trying to warn people of the virus as it spread in the first weeks of 2020, died of the disease, the anger online overwhelmed the censors.

China’s subsequent success in containing the pandemic through 2020 and 2021 was a major source of pride, particularly as many other parts of the world were plunged into chaos. But as restrictions began to ease in many countries this year, and especially as the rest of Asia – including the Chinese territory of Hong Kong – opened up, frustration over Beijing’s insistence on clinging to its zero-COVID policy has grown.

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Police officers detain a man in Shanghai, China, on Sunday night, Nov. 27, 2022.THE NEW YORK TIMES/The New York Times News Service

This was first seen in Shanghai, when millions were confined to their homes for weeks, often without sufficient food or other supplies. From a censorship perspective, this created millions of angry people with little to do but share anti-lockdown invective and videos of people screaming from their balconies or clashing with epidemic workers.

That was just a preview of what happened this month, however. After a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, killed at least 10 people, rumours swiftly spread that some of the fatalities were due to lockdown restrictions. Coming after a deadly quarantine bus crash and the death of a young girl who was denied medical care, this was too much for many to take, and spontaneous protests took place in cities across the country.

While they began as memorials for the dead, they swiftly transformed into general anti-lockdown and then anti-government protests, with people shouting for Mr. Xi to step down and even for the Communist Party to be overthrown.

Online censors scrambled to keep up. On Weibo and WeChat, China’s two largest social media platforms, news feeds filled up with photos and videos from the protests. Many posts were swiftly deleted, but they were often just as quickly uploaded again or replaced with new imagery from demonstrations in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities.

The Great Firewall, which cuts China off from the rest of the internet, became something of a bridge. Screenshots of posts on Weibo were shared on Twitter, where they were safe from censors and could then be shared again on the Chinese platform after being deleted.

Even Monday, as police in Shanghai and elsewhere began flooding the sites of the previous night’s protests, arresting many who showed up, anti-government content continued to spread online, with many turning to tried-and-tested techniques to avoid automated censorship, such as distorting images or flipping videos.

Others resorted to sarcasm and dark irony, echoing protesters who responded to police demands that they stop criticizing the government by calling for even more lockdowns. One essay shared online was simply titled “Good, good, good, good, good,” and others responded with similar messages.

“Correct! Good! Yes! Of course!” one wrote. “Nobody’s alive outside our borders. Win, win, win, win, win.”

History shows the censors will eventually reassert themselves. The sheer amount of resources the government has to throw at such issues cannot be met by an unorganized movement, no matter how many people are part of it. Pervasive surveillance also means arrests can follow at any time, so protesters who feel safe now may hear a knock on the door in days to come.

But this weekend has also shown that while the Great Firewall can keep a lid on most unrest, it may not be able to stop the pot boiling over completely.

James Griffiths is The Globe and Mail’s Asia correspondent and the author of The Great Firewall of China: How to build and control an alternative version of the internet.

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