China’s COVID-19 protests: What we know so far

People have gathered in at least eight cities across China in a sign of the growing frustration at Beijing’s zero-COVID strategy.

A masked protester holds up a sign which reads "Commemorate Urumqi Nov 24 compatriots who died" in Beijing
A protester holds a sign referencing the deaths of 10 people in a fire in Urumqi. 'Commemorate the compatriots who died in Urumqi Nov 24', it says [Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]

Protests have emerged across China in recent days amid rising public frustration at the government’s zero-COVID strategy, which has led to repeated lockdowns and severe restrictions on daily life.

Demonstrations and vigils have taken place in many cities, including the capital, Beijing, and the country’s biggest city and financial centre Shanghai.

Protests taking place across so many cities and coalesced around a single issue are unusual and come only a few weeks after President Xi Jinping was confirmed for a third term in office.

Some of the protesters in Shanghai have shouted slogans calling for him to go.

Meanwhile, the authorities announced on Monday that daily coronavirus cases across China had reached more than 40,000, a new record.

“It is definitely unusual that you have so many different cities all across China demonstrating right now,” Moritz Rudolf, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, told Al Jazeera. “You have students who are protesting, workers who are protesting and this is quite unusual to see at this point in time.”

Police detain people at a protest in Shanghai
Police officers detained some protesters in Shanghai on Sunday, taking them away in a bus [Reuters]

Here is a closer look at what is going on:

When did the protests start?

The trigger for the latest demonstrations appears to be a fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of the far-western region of Xinjiang.

Ten people died in the blaze and the protesters blame a prolonged COVID-19 lockdown that they say hindered attempts to rescue the residents of the high-rise building.

Crowds in Urumqi took to the streets on Friday evening, chanting “End the lockdown!”, according to unverified videos on social media.

Anger previously bubbled to the surface in September after a bus taking people to a coronavirus quarantine centre in southwestern China crashed, killing 27 of the passengers and injuring 20.

In the initial phase of the pandemic in Wuhan, the death of a doctor, Li Wenliang, also provoked an outpouring of anger. Dr Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, was one of the first people to raise the alarm about the potential new virus but was apprehended by police. He died in February 2020.

Where have protests taken place?

The latest protests have been reported in at least eight cities around China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing and Lanzhou. Students at the University of Hong Kong also held a small demonstration on Sunday night, according to Al Jazeera correspondent Patrick Fok, and there have been gatherings in solidarity outside Chinese embassies overseas.

Protesters in Beijing holds up blank sheets of white paper as a protest against censorship
People hold up sheets of white paper to signal their opposition to government censorship [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

Many of the protesters have taken to holding up sheets of white paper.

“The white paper represents everything we want to say but cannot say,” Johnny, 26, who took part in one of the protest gatherings in Beijing, told the Reuters news agency.

“I came here to pay respects to the victims of the fire I really hope we can see an end to all of these COVID measures. We want to live a normal life again. We want to have dignity.”

In Hong Kong in 2020, activists also raised blank sheets of white paper in protest to avoid slogans banned under the national security law that Beijing had imposed that year following mass protests in 2019 that sometimes turned violent.

Demonstrators in Moscow have also used them this year to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Why are people unhappy with the zero-COVID approach?

China’s strategy to contain the virus is far tougher than the approach now being taken by much of the rest of the world because its ultimate goal remains to eliminate the virus completely.

That is obviously a lot harder now the virus has evolved and become more contagious – indeed the World Health Organization has described it as “unsustainable”, but Beijing has shown no willingness to depart from its so-called zero-COVID strategy.

President Xi has said it is necessary to save lives and protect the vulnerable – many of the country’s people aged above 80 have not received both their vaccine shots let alone a booster.

Under zero-COVID policy, lockdowns are imposed in places wherever cases have been confirmed, contacts live or have visited.

The confirmed cases are taken to centralised quarantine centres, and those living near them are subjected to mass testing and draconian curbs on their everyday lives.

These go well beyond any of the restrictions imposed in many Western countries during the height of the pandemic.

Residents are confined to their homes and not allowed to leave, with businesses and schools closed and transport suspended. Barricades are generally erected around affected districts with food supplied to affected residents.

Since lockdowns are often imposed suddenly, tourists can also be caught up in them and unable to return home, sometimes for weeks.

Authorities have also been known to place cameras outside people’s front doors or even weld them shut.

Pets have emerged as another point of contention, with reports of animals being exterminated in locked-down areas in Shanghai and other cities.

What might happen next?

Chinese censors have been busy trying to remove images and posts related to the protests that have appeared on the country’s popular Weibo and WeChat platforms (access to sites such as Twitter is blocked in China).

By Sunday morning, the hashtag “white paper exercise” was blocked on Weibo.

“If you fear a blank sheet of paper, you are weak inside,” one Weibo user commented.

On Sunday night, police in Shanghai began arresting protesters and taking them away in a bus.

A BBC journalist covering the demonstration in the city was also assaulted and detained. The broadcaster said he was released after a few hours.

Analysts say the authorities might be wary of taking a more hardline response, however.

“The question of where it’s going to go, I think, is really important, because so far the state has not reacted,” William Hurst, an expert on China at the University of Cambridge told Al Jazeera.

“I think that repression in the conservative or coordinated way would be extremely risky and extremely expensive. So I think what they’re actually looking to do is kind of wait it out, and hope that it fizzles, and it very well may fizzle in the next few days.”

The other question is how it might handle COVID-19 given the level of public exasperation over the current policy.

“The government is in a real fix,” James Crabtree, the executive director of think-tank IISS-Asia, told Al Jazeera. “There doesn’t seem to be an obvious way out of the COVID cul-de-sac in which they find themselves.”

With reporting by Erin Hale in Taiwan

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies