‘Very brave to protest’: What to know about China’s anti-lockdown demonstrations

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‘Very brave to protest’: What to know about China’s anti-lockdown demonstrations


  • Xi JinpingXi Jinping

Kate Murphy


Mon, November 28, 2022 at 2:58 PM·5 min read

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  • Xi JinpingXi JinpingGeneral Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party
A person holds a candle as people gather for a vigil and hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease restrictions in Beijing in November.
At a vigil in Beijing in November, a person holds a candle and others hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus restrictions. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

In a rare display of defiance, protests have erupted across China over the government’s so-called zero-COVID policy, which has caused economic damage and mounting anger over stringent lockdown policies.

The protests were triggered Thursday after a deadly fire at an apartment building in China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang province. Videos of the incident appeared to show that lockdown measures delayed firefighters from getting to the victims, at least 10 of whom died.

Firefighters spray water on a fire at a residential building in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Firefighters spray water on a fire at a residential building in Urumqi in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (AP)

Meanwhile, China reported Monday that it had a daily record of 40,000 new COVID cases, raising questions about the effectiveness of the authoritarian government’s strict measures as other nations largely relax their protocols.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute and professor of Chinese studies at King’s College in London, spoke to Yahoo News to explain what’s behind these rare protests transforming into a bigger plea for change. (Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Yahoo News: Where are the protests happening in China, and what is the bigger problem the government has to address?

Kerry Brown: They have been happening with main urban centers — Shanghai, Beijing — places where there have been recent COVID outbreaks and where people have experienced the lockdowns. I think the government is aware that people have reached their limit. I don’t think that they’re doing this for the fun of it. The problem is that if government leaders do lift restrictions quickly, there will be a spike. And the Chinese health care system is somewhat imperfect and uneven: Where it’s good it’s good, and where it’s not good it’s nonexistent. I think that’s the real problem. They’re frightened that if they do lift restrictions, and as other places have experienced, there will be a spike of infections and a rise in mortality, and then the hospital system and the public health system will be close to a breaking point. So that’s a bigger problem in some senses that the government is looking to at the moment. They’re caught between those two options: Continue the very unpopular lockdowns, or lift them, but too quickly, and then risk having a spike.

Why is China still seeing record numbers of daily COVID cases despite its zero-COVID policy?

I just think because the Omicron variant is very infectious, and also because the levels of vaccination in China are relatively low. It’s an aging, vulnerable population. So the combination of those two things means that you have had a fast spread in the last few days. They have modestly lifted restrictions, so this is a taste of what things could become. A combination of those means the infection rates have gone up.

Why have some protesters called for President Xi Jinping to step down?

I think some people have been doing that. They’re extremely frustrated and fed up. However, I don’t think that that’s the mainstream view. I think that people just want these policies to be lifted. They’re realistic, and they know it’s just not going to happen. The Communist Party is not going to fall anytime soon, as Xi Jinping is well entrenched in power. But I think they’re just very frustrated and angry, and this is an expressio

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