What Shanghai protesters want and fear
The past week has brought many sleepless nights for Chinese people, as well as for those like me who watch from afar.
You may have seen that nearly three years after the pandemic started, protests have erupted across the country. Hundreds of people marched in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan to remember the victims of the Urumqi apartment fire. They also demanded that the government relax its strict pandemic policies. Many blame them for putting the dead in danger.
It’s remarkable. It’s a remarkable demonstration, and it’s taking place at a time when China’s government is doing a better job of suppressing dissent.
Videos from these protests were shared on social media in real-time, on both American and Chinese platforms. They have quickly become international news. Discussions among foreigners have often reduced the protests’ sensational clips to the most extreme, especially those in which protesters directly criticize President Xi Jinping and the ruling party.
The reality is more complicated. Different people will want different things, just like any spontaneous protest. Some people only want to abolish zero-covid policies. Others have called for freedom of speech and a change in leadership.
I spoke to two Shanghai residents who witnessed the protests firsthand to learn what they saw, why they went and what makes them anxious about returning. Both requested that we only use their surnames to avoid political retribution.
Zhang, who attended the first protest in Shanghai on Saturday after midnight, said he was motivated to let people know he is unhappy. He said that not everyone can suffer silently from your actions, referring to government officials. “No. People’s lives are really difficult, and you should reflect .”
In the hour Zhang was there, Zhang stated that protesters were mostly chanting slogans opposing zero-covid policies. Zhang also mentioned the now-famous line, “Say no covid tests, but yes to food.” No to lockdowns. Yes to freedom” was a protest by Peng Lifa , just before China’s highly guarded party congress meeting last week. While Peng has not been seen in public in the past week, his slogans were heard all over China. Releasing China’s strict pandemic controls, which often don’t reflect a scientific understanding, is the most important–and most agreed upon–demand.
One picture that’s been circulating widely on Chinese social media since Monday is a good example of these more pragmatic calls. Among six demands listed, it asks the government to apologize for unreasonable covid policies, to stop exaggerating the risks of contracting covid, to abandon QR-code-based pandemic surveillance measures, and to resume allowing everyday activities like dining in restaurants and going to movie theaters.
It was only later that night, or, more accurately, the early hours of the morning that the chants became more radical and political. Some people called for the Chinese Communist Party (Xi) to resign. Zhang had already left, but he was able to see videos from home via social media.
Chen was another Shanghai resident who attended the second protest at the same place on Sunday afternoon. He heard much the same as Zhang. She stated that although everyone echoed the demands to relax the testing system and increase freedom, there were also chants specifically mentioning Xi and the Communist Party. These, she stated, were less loud.
Chen agreed with the rights of people to speak what they want but she was concerned that it might distract from what she believes is the core message. “It’s not necessary to shout out too radical political slogans right from the beginning. It’s too radical.”
The people who are protesting are clearly not a single group. This is not the first time that many people have participated in a real protest; they are still learning how it works. They were genuinely disturbed at the increased covid control measures and decided to leave their homes. Even after the Chinese government announced a policy to loosen restrictions in early November, the reality on the ground hasn’t really changed. Local government officials have increased their control in some cities. People might think only of the things they are most familiar with, rather than what it means at a higher political level.
It’s understandable that the rare direct criticism of China’s top leadership has raised more eyebrows overseas and made it into newspaper headlines. However, it has raised concerns that this organic, domestic movement could be interpreted as foreign interference. In reality, this is already happening. In fact, that’s already happening. The Chinese information-control system has a long tradition of smearing protesters as foreign agents.
So what’s the next step? While we don’t know how much longer the protests will continue, it is becoming harder to organize and attend them since the Chinese police increased their enforcement activities in response to the events.
While Zhang has friends who worry that protesters are being pushed to become more radical as the demonstrations continue, that in particular does not trouble him. He said that he believes it’s fine for people to have different thoughts and feelings. Zhang stated, “[If you disagree], you can choose to not say it.” There will always be too radical slogans in protests. You can either choose peaceful demonstrations and not say anything; or if you are speaking out, then don’t be afraid.”
What does worry him is how China’s well-oiled state surveillance system can be easily deployed against these protesters–an important part of the risk calculation for anyone who has participated and who still wants to go. Zhang posted on social media that Beijing protesters suspect their health code data was used against them to determine who showed-up. There are also reports of police checking people’s phones in Shanghai, which deeply concerned Chen and made her take a different route to work on Monday to avoid the police presence.
Chen expressed concern about going to another protest and being left alone, and becoming a victim to the police. She said she would go if there were enough people; she wants to because she has learned from the past that protests do matter. Chen believed that the single-person protest by Peng Lifa in October would go unnoticed. Peng Lifa’s single-person protest in October was dismissed by Chen. However, she has seen so many people chant the same words Peng wrote, which has convinced her that protests can be effective in getting the message across in China today. She said that these fights produce meaningful results. “The [results] might not be visible the next day, but .”
What else do you need to know about the protests Write me at [email protected]
Catch up with China
1. What else you need to know about the protests in China:
- A Uyghur living in exile confirmed that five of his relatives died in the Urumqi fire, which inspired the nationwide protests. (AP)
- Twitter, with its massively reduced anti-propaganda team, is struggling with the rise of porn spam that has obscured search results on what’s happening in Chinese cities. (Washington Post $)
- Blank sheets of white paper have become the new protest symbol. (Wall Street Journal $)
- Last week, in a separate but related protest, workers in a Foxconn factory in China clashed, sometimes violently, with security forces over salary changes and covid-infection concerns. (CNN)
2. China will revise its antitrust laws, adding new rules for tech platforms. (South China Morning Post $)
3. Recently, four Chinese immigrants who worked on a marijuana farm in Oklahoma were killed. (NBC News)
- While it’s too early to know if it was the case in this incident, during the pandemic thousands of Chinese immigrants living on the West Coast were lured and trafficked to cannabis farms in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the Navajo Nation. (Searchlight New Mexico)
4. The installation of a Chinese bishop in a diocese that the Vatican does not recognize was a surprise to the Vatican. (Vatican News)
5. Serbian police used Huawei-made surveillance equipment to capture videos of protesters and identify fugitives. (Radio Free Europe)
6. Three mRNA vaccines have been developed by Sino Biopharm in China to prevent monkeypox. (News Medical)
7. After a deal between Activision Blizzard China and the Chinese company NetEase, popular video games such as Overwatch and World of Warcraft will no longer be available in China. (BBC)
8. Although China is the largest climate polluter, data shows that the US has produced the highest levels of emissions in history. (MIT Technology Review)
Lost in translation
When three Chinese artists found themselves in a centralized quarantine facility in Sichuan, they decided to turn eight days in solitary into an art experiment.
As Chinese publication Bingdian Weekly reported, Meng Lichao, Chen Yu, and Yang Yang were supposed to attend an art festival in early November, but a last-minute covid case in the hotel where they were staying meant all three artists had to be transferred to a quarantine facility. They decided to set up art exhibits in their own rooms, as they missed the festival. Meng made doodles on every inch of the walls, and Chen printed surveillance camera footage of residents opening their doors to the public. Yang created a collage with medical waste trash bags and cotton swabs.
In the end, because it was a quarantine facility no one could see the art in their rooms, except for the next batch who arrived hours later.
One more thing
Who says you can’t find peace and serenity in your phone? Young Chinese people are using apps that simulate “wooden fish”–a special woodblock that Buddhist monks knock rhythmically in ceremonies–to purify themselves of sins and acquire “merit scores.” Well, most of the time it’s more of a tongue-in-cheek joke for these people than a serious religious practice. App developers have come up with many different digital wooden fish. Sometimes, they allow users to compete with their friends for the highest merit score.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.