Covid ‘tipping point’ protests give hope for political freedoms
Chinese youth yearn for change
Hong Kong/Beijing – When Yang, a Shanghai office worker, saw video clips of a burning building in western China, a disaster in which 10 people were killed, she said she could not contain her anger over tough Covid-19 measures three years into the pandemic.
Watching a World Cup soccer match in a Shanghai bar two days later with her boyfriend, she spotted calls on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app, for a public gathering to mourn the victims. She rushed over by bicycle to attend. “Things reached a tipping point, we had to come out,” Yang, 32, who declined to be identified by her full name given fear of reprisals, said,
Six young people who spoke to Reuters from four cities across China – all dipping their toes in activism for the first time – describe a mix of elation, fear and defiance after a restive weekend and a tightening of security.
While united against China’s stifling “zero-Covid” measures, all six also spoke of a yearning for broader political freedoms, 33 years after students occupied China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Authorities have denied the deaths in the fire were linked to lockdown measures that blocked the victims’ escape.
“We don’t want masks, we want freedoms,” Yang chanted, using her phone to share pictures, videos and posts over Twitter, Telegram and Instagram – apps not accessible on the mainland without a virtual private network she’d installed. As the hours wore on, chants grew bolder. “Down with the Chinese Communist Party,” people chanted, some casting off their masks. “Down with Xi Jinping!”
But much of the public frustration is directed at President Xi’s signature zero-Covid policy, rather than at him or the ruling party. While many in China have supported the policy, which has spared it from the ravages of a virus that has killed millions elsewhere, significant frustration has built as a new wave of infections has led to the return of widespread lockdowns.
A senior health official said on Tuesday public complaints about the curbs stemmed from overzealous implementation rather than from the measures, and authorities would continue fine-tuning policy to reduce the impact on society.
China had relied mainly on domestically produced vaccines, which some studies suggest were not as effective as some foreign ones, meaning lifting Covid measures could come with big risks.
Considering herself part of a small “liberal bubble” in Shanghai – China’s most cosmopolitan city – Yang did not imagine so many people sharing her frustrations in a country that has grown increasingly authoritarian in the decade since Xi assumed power.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve done something like this,” she said. “In my heart, I’ve murmured such things a thousand times, but hearing these slogans suddenly chanted by so many real people was exciting and shocking to me.”
For many in other cities, the Covid lockdowns have exacerbated a sense of powerlessness. “The protests are happening because under the Covid prevention measures people can’t satisfy their fundamental needs to survive,” said Jiayin, in Guangzhou.
There, at the weekend, people thronged a bridge connecting two districts under lockdown and sang Sky by Hong Kong band Beyond, hugely popular among Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators in 2019.