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Hundred Days after Anti-Zero COVID Protests in China

Ms Mayuri Banerjee is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 25, 2023


    Anti-Zero COVID protests rocked China in the last week of November 2022 following the death of ten people in a building fire in Urumqi. Protesters demanded the end of Zero-COVID policy and held blank sheets of A4-size papers as a symbol of dissent. More than hundred days have passed since then. In retrospect, while the A4 protests were significant, they may not lead to long-lasting socio-political changes.


    The death of ten people in a building fire accident in Urumqi, Xinjiang on 24 November 2022 sparked large-scale protests across China. Citizens were seen marching with People’s Republic of China (PRC) flags and demanding end of lockdowns. Candlelight vigils were held in university campuses like Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Nanjing Forestry University and Sichuan Film and Television Academy. Residents in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities also gathered to commemorate the victims.

    Soon the vigils and commemoration turned into a protest movement. Thousands of protesters held blank A4-size white papers as a sign of defiance and called for an end to the Zero-COVID policy, lockdowns and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.1 Adding to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agony, slogans were raised against Zero-COVID policy at Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University. Reportedly, in one of the public demonstrations, there were also calls for Xi Jinping to step down.2

    A large section of observers and commentators outside China writing in both mainstream and social media dubbed the protests as historic and viewed them as potentially posing a challenge to the CCP and Xi Jinping. However, the events associated with the protests appear to be fading from public memory.

    China’s Zero-COVID Policy

    The ‘Zero-COVID’ or the ‘Dynamic Zero-COVID’ policy was a two-pronged strategy that aimed to manage the pandemic through prevention and containment. The key strategy was to stop community-level transmission rapidly by early detection through PCR tests and then containing the spread through lockdowns, contact tracing, mass testing and quarantining of infected and potential patients. The implementation of the policy, however, became problematic for two reasons.

    First, because the implementation was highly mechanical, the provincial governments came under immense pressure to achieve zero-community level transmission.3 Accordingly, reports emerged about many policy excesses like people failing to access medical attention for other diseases due to pandemic restrictions or being forcibly transferred to quarantine centres. Several provincial governments mandated COVID-19 tests for their citizens every two days. Communities were sealed off with barricades and residents were locked inside for days.4

    One notable incident that demonstrated Chinese administrative rigidity was when on 31 October 2022, the Shanghai Disneyland abruptly shut its gates after one COVID case was traced back to the theme park and visitors that day were allowed to leave only after receiving a negative PCR report.5 Evidently, the stringent implementation of Zero-COVID protocols brushed over public convenience and ignored the social, medical, psychological and other livelihood needs of the public. 

    Second, strict adherence to Zero-COVID became a means of showcasing loyalty to Xi and the CCP, so local governments stuck to it even in the face of high economic costs.6 The outbreak of the pandemic and other events like power shortages, the Evergrande crisis, crackdowns in multiple sectors, the Russia–Ukraine crisis, ageing population exerted downward pressure on the Chinese economy, and their cumulative adverse impact was deepened by the stringent Zero-COVID policies. The IMF projected in October 2022 that China’s GDP will grow by 3.2 per cent for the year 2022, well below the official target of 5.5 per cent set by the Chinese government.7

    Industrial production was pushed to the lowest levels as multiple manufacturers like Volkswagen, Toyota and Apple supplier Foxconn were forced to halt operations in some of China’s busiest manufacturing hubs like Zhejiang and Guangdong province.8 Small and medium businesses that account for a considerable amount of national growth and jobs struggled to operate due to rising freight charges and raw materials, disruption in production and supply lines, low output, and a fall in retail sales.9 The tourism and the service sector were badly affected. China’s overall unemployment increased to slightly over 6 per cent.10 Provincial governments incurred huge costs of organising mass testing and quarantine facilities while the economic disparity between the provinces deepened.11

    The mechanical implementation and politicisation of Zero-COVID policy created considerable socio-economic tension for the population. Incidentally, the official Chinese narrative maintained that the impact of the pandemic on Chinese social and economic life was mitigated due to strict adherence to the Zero-COVID policy. However, frequent disruption to social and economic activities fuelled social anxiety, economic uncertainty and led to unemployment.12 Combined with these factors, the population was also suffering from pandemic fatigue caused due to prolonged periods of lockdowns and stagnation. It is opined that the mounting socio-economic distress and pandemic fatigue were the primary driving force behind the A4 protests and the Urumqi fire incident was the final trigger.

    Significance of the A4 Protests

    Given the disruptive impact of Zero-COVID policies, public protests against local governments' pandemic management were visible during the three years of Zero-COVID. In 2021, during the summer outbreak, residents in one of Yangzhou’s neighbourhood protested against the local government’s decision to continue the lockdown, despite the failure of the government-run delivery system. Similarly, during the Shanghai lockdown in May 2022, angry residents screamed and banged empty utensils to protest against stringent lockdowns.13 Social media became a platform for expressing resentment against government actions. People expressed anger over governance failures, lack of administrative empathy, public punishment for flouting COVID-19 rules, and long phases of stringent lockdowns.14 Here, it is noteworthy that the protests remained primarily localised and targeted local governments.

    However, the November 2022 protests did not remain localised. Instead, public discontent against Zero-COVID policy rapidly spread across China. One of the reasons that A4 protests became significant was due to the nature and the scope of the event. Spontaneous gatherings to commemorate the victims quickly turned into public protests and the unrest spread to major urban centres across China. Second, citizens from various sections of the society like urban workers, residents, intellectuals and university students participated in the protests. Further, besides demanding the end to the Zero-COVID policy, protesters in Beijing and Shanghai, considered to be CCP’s power base, called for more political rights and for Xi Jinping to step down.15 More importantly, the Chinese diaspora and residents who could not join physically, voiced their support online.16 This concurrent nature of the protests and the large scope is highly unusual in China and was last witnessed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

    Public innovation in resisting the government, exhibited during the A4 protests, also added to the significance of the event. The blank white papers became a symbol of passive resistance against the government, whereby the protestors criticising the government’s censorship policies conveyed grief on the death of the victims and resentment against Zero-COVID policy. Besides that, netizens started a trend of “politically coming out” in favour of ending Zero-COVID. This became immensely popular in Chinese social media and was used to extend solidarity to the protestors and encourage people to speak against Zero-COVID.17 Contrary to official claims that foreign elements instigated protests, different expressions of public discontent revealed the actual exasperation with Zero-COVID policy and rejection of Beijing’s narrative of Zero-COVID being a most effective policy.

    Impact of the November 2022 protests

    The impact of the November 2022 protests has been mixed in terms of immediate and enduring changes. As an immediate after-effect, public activism about government’s pandemic management increased. For instance, besides criticising the strict Zero-COVID controls, citizens expressed resentment at the central administration over the disorder and confusion created due to the abrupt end of the Zero-COVID policy.18 Thousands of negative comments criticising government’s lack of planning were posted on social media. Medical personnel demanded adequate protection kits against COVID-19 and better pay for an increased workload.19  Clearly, the general public showed willingness to take the risk and stand against government mismanagement.

    Another major impact the protests had was to convey to the Party leaders the limitation of state propaganda and made them sense public frustration over excessive social control. In effect, the demonstrators were not only protesting against the Zero-Covid policy but also the harsh implementation of Zero-Covid protocols.  Accordingly, despite dismissing the protests as being choreographed by external forces, Xi Jinping, during a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel on 1 December 2022, acknowledged that certain social groups, including students, were frustrated by China’s pandemic control policies.20   

    However, the protests did not significantly impact the  domestic political dynamics. The isolated incidents of calls for CCP and Xi Jinping to step down fizzled out and there were no renewed demands for socio-political reforms when the government responded with easing of Zero-Covid restrictions. Further, in this context it is noteworthy that though the A4 protests were considered to have caused the government to make a U-turn on the Zero-COVID policy, analysts have pointed out that the A4 protests momentarily alarmed the authorities but were not instrumental in leading to an overnight change of policy. Lockdowns or ‘static management’ continued in many places.21 Additionally, early in November 2022, Beijing issued 20 Points aimed at relaxing excessive lockdown measures.

    Reportedly, the rushed opening (considered to have been triggered by the protests) happened due to miscommunication between Beijing and the local governments. The local cadres and frontline workers misinterpreted Beijing’s New Ten Points issued on 7 December 2022 (originally a guideline to withdraw Zero-COVID policy in small steps) as signal to open up completely. The central leadership, realising that it was too late to prevent damage, moved to legitimise the actions of the local governments by issuing new guidelines that endorsed the opening up. The economic pressure from big businesses was cited as another major factor.22

    The Protests and the Aftermath

    Notwithstanding public frustration over Zero-COVID controls, trust in Xi Jinping and CCP apparently continues to be high, as per the Edelman Trust Barometer Report 2023.23 More importantly, the A4 protests have rapidly receded from public memory as the domestic population slowly navigates their lives through the post-COVID situation hoping for better economic and social opportunities. The CCP, though, appears to have been made aware of the possibility of more organised and widespread mass protests in the future. However, fearing that public repression might cause further unrest, the government has departed from the usual method of treating the dissenters harshly in public. Instead, authorities quietly arrested individuals thought to have been part of public demonstrations. Around 100 arrests were made mainly targeting university graduates and women. To deter further vigils, the Cyberspace administration of China issued guidelines to tech companies to restrict VPN use and constrain posts relating to the protests.

    The A4 protest will remain a memorable event in the history of China’s mass protests both because of its symbolic value and also due to its failure to secure substantive changes.  Various factors like sudden occurrence of the protests, public outcry against a policy prioritised by Beijing, large-scale participation and open expression of dissent made the protests a significant event in China’s socio-economic landscape. On the other hand, the protests did not gather the requisite momentum to generate sweeping reforms.   

    Although the verdict on the impact of the A4 protests on Chinese society and politics remains divided, the event has opened avenues for further study in Chinese state-society dynamics, especially in the context of mass protests of this scale. Accordingly, issues like organisation of public protests, their causes, and expression of public discontent under China’s heavy censorship regime should be studied extensively. Simultaneously, more attention should be directed to assess the state’s response in terms of propaganda and coercive action and the failure of public protests to gain foothold within Chinese society. Such an exercise will help to understand the underlying socio-political fault lines in China, failure of public protests to gain foothold within Chinese society and the authoritarian state’s resilience and capacity to adapt to socio-political crises.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.