They began as a show of mourning. Then came the anger.
As protesters gathered in cities across China over the weekend, many carried candles and flowers to honour the 10 people killed in an apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. Locals say COVID-19 lockdown rules hindered the emergency response to the blaze, though officials have denied this, and for many it was a breaking point.
Since late 2019, China has implemented some of the world’s toughest pandemic policies, locking down whole neighbourhoods and cities to prevent the spread of infection. For two years, this kept case counts down and the death rate low, a point of national pride as the rest of the world plunged into chaos.
But as other countries have opened up this year, and the more transmissible Omicron strain has tested Chinese controls, frustration with Beijing’s zero-COVID policy has grown. A series of disasters and deaths linked to the policy, rather than the virus it was meant to control, has only spurred public anger.
With police out in force Monday, there was little word of protests. There were signs of police shutting down areas in Beijing and Shanghai where demonstrations had taken place and arresting some on the scene who had apparently come to protest.
In Hong Kong, about 50 students sang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and some lit candles in a show of support for protesters in mainland cities. Hiding their faces to avoid official retaliation, the students chanted, “No PCR tests but freedom!” and “Oppose dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”
The gathering and a similar one elsewhere in Hong Kong were the biggest protests there in more than a year under rules imposed to crush a prodemocracy movement in the territory.
Authorities in parts of Beijing and other cities did seem to be relaxing some rules Monday, even as state media published editorials defending the country’s tough approach as medically necessary. The moves are in line with an earlier call by China’s leaders for more “targeted and precise” responses to outbreaks – though they still fall short of what many protesters were demanding.
At protests on Saturday and Sunday, many called for an end to the lockdowns. But as their anger was uncorked, other frustrations spilled over. Draconian pandemic rules have underlined for many just how powerless they are in the face of government power, unable to influence policies that have trapped people in their homes and devastated the world’s second-largest economy.
“Down with the Chinese Communist Party! Down with Xi Jinping!” some protesters chanted in Beijing.
It was indicative of what many analysts had predicted – that Mr. Xi, in endlessly centralizing power in the party and his own person, has made himself a focal point of anger.
Some of the language of the protests and spread online – as censors struggled to keep up – echoed that of a lone demonstration on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge, in the run-up to October’s Communist Party Congress, where Mr. Xi secured an unprecedented third term as leader.
“Remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping!” read banners raised over the bridge. “We don’t want to be slaves, we want to be citizens.”
That message, tightly censored in China, has resonated with Chinese nationals around the world, particularly among students overseas, many of whom also staged sympathy demonstrations with this weekend’s protests.
How long the unrest will continue is unclear, but the anger is unlikely to dissipate without a policy shift – something that may prove far more difficult than suppressing the protests themselves.
Chinese authorities appear to be aware that people are reaching their limit with the current measures. A wave of new cases, however, has made lifting restrictions far more difficult, and many of the issues that inform the zero-COVID policy – poor vaccination rates, concerns about rural health care capacity – remain valid today.
Even as hundreds of millions of people have been subjected to repeated mandatory testing across China, vaccination remains optional, and many elderly Chinese have avoided getting inoculated.
“The authorities have trapped themselves into a situation from which there’s no obvious escape strategy,” François Balloux, the director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, wrote Sunday. “Whatever they choose – or will be forced – to do next will be very costly.”
Prof. Balloux said the current restrictions are “becoming increasingly untenable as the population is suffering,” but “a major COVID-19 surge in China would lead to a dramatic death toll.
“China is extremely poorly prepared for a major COVID surge. Very few people have acquired immunity to the virus through prior exposure, and vaccination rates in the elderly are dismally low,” he wrote on Twitter.
The situation would likely mirror that of Hong Kong, where a similarly tough zero-COVID strategy failed to contain an outbreak earlier this year. Thousands died, many of them unvaccinated elderly people. COVID-19 is now endemic in Hong Kong, and the Chinese territory has begun relaxing most controls and opening up.
China could avoid a similar fate if it launched an intensive vaccination campaign, which officials have so far appeared reluctant to do, for unclear reasons.
At the protests and online, those calling for Mr. Xi or the Communist Party to relinquish power were in the minority; most people said they merely wished to return to pre-COVID normality. There is good reason to believe China’s rulers will be able to negotiate the current situation and remain in firm control, either through repression or careful concessions framed as nothing of the sort.
But the continuing failure to plot a path out of zero-COVID, as the weekend protests showed, is undermining faith in the government and could evolve into something a lot more dangerous to Mr. Xi.
With a report from The Associated Press