Cracks in the Firewall

The recent protests in China
People hold blank sheets of paper to protest Covid restrictions and Chinese censorship after a deadly fire in Urumqi, Beijing, China, November 27, 2022 (REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo).

Three days before China’s twentieth Communist Party Congress in October, a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit and yellow hard hat unfurled two large banners on a highway overpass in northwest Beijing. “No Covid test, we want to eat. No lockdown, we want freedom. No lies, we want dignity. No Cultural Revolution, we want reform. No supreme leaders, we want votes. Don’t be slaves, be citizens,” one of them proclaimed.  “Remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping” read the other, a shocking critique of China’s president and the man behind the country’s draconian “zero-Covid” policy. The protester’s statement was all the more surprising because in China the expression of any type of dissent is enough to land a person behind bars.   

Within minutes, police surrounded Peng Lifa and tore down his signs. But Peng’s message was noticed and, in the brief moment before the censors kicked in, photos of the incident flooded China’s internet. Many shared Peng’s frustration with zero Covid, where just a few positive tests have caused entire neighborhoods to be locked down for months, forcing thousands of people—even if they are asymptomatic—to isolate in massive quarantine centers for weeks. Just a few hours later, though, posts of Peng’s action disappeared. China’s algorithms had learned to erase all references to the incident, as if it had never happened.

Peng’s protest was similarly nonexistent for the Party Congress, held October 16 through October 22 in Beijing. Xi had already amended China’s constitution to eliminate the two-term limit for the president four years ago, so it was hardly surprising that the Congress anointed him with a third five-year term. Since Xi failed to signal a potential successor, it appears that he intends to rule for life.

Xi completed his consolidation of power on the Party Congress’s final day, when he revealed the six men (and they are always men) who will serve on the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the body that essentially runs China by directing the course of policy and rendering decisions on major issues. All are Xi loyalists. Not since Mao has a Chinese leader been so thoroughly surrounded by sycophants. And like Mao’s, Xi’s Standing Committee portends a China that may well be forced to follow a single man’s vision, no matter the disasters that could follow. In fact, one of Xi’s selections, Li Qiang, was the Party secretary of Shanghai, responsible for implementing the city’s chaotic and much-criticized zero-Covid lockdown last spring. Zero Covid “puts people and lives above all else,” Xi triumphantly told the Party Congress. His speech was also peppered with calls for greater “security and stability,” code for more societal control, enhanced censorship, and the continued squelching of dissent, all regular features of Xi’s decade-long rule.

By November, the Chinese people had had enough. On November 11, there was a slight easing of China’s draconian Covid restrictions. But as cases inevitably rose, local officials reverted to full lockdowns, in accordance with Xi’s insistence on zero Covid. On November 23, frustration again boiled over at an iPhone factory in the manufacturing city of Zhengzhou. When the promised bonuses meant to appease workers for enduring lockdown-like conditions never materialized, protests broke out. Police, masked and dressed in white hazmat suits, responded with tear gas and batons. Cell phone videos of the violence surfaced on the Chinese internet.

A day later, in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, at least ten people, mostly members of the Uyghur minority, died in an apartment fire. The city had been under a Covid lockdown since August, and it’s likely that the victims were unable to escape due to locked fire exits. Barricaded streets prevented firefighters from getting close enough to quickly extinguish the blaze. The next day, Ürümqi residents took to the streets, a rare moment of defiance in a region where the Chinese government randomly detains Uyghurs in internment camps for months or even years.   

In China, the expression of any type of dissent is enough to land a person behind bars.

Videos of the fire, which captured the screams of dying residents, somehow seeped past the internet censors. Not long after, in multiple cities across China, people turned out to protest zero Covid, some out of solidarity with the Uyghurs (in Shanghai, participants coalesced around Ürümqi Street) and some simply because of lingering frustration with Xi’s lockdowns. By the end of November, the protests had spread to nineteen cities. Large protests are not rare in China, but the government usually manages to confine them to one neighborhood in a single city. Not since 1989, when the Tiananmen Square demonstrations spread to other cities, have Chinese protests gone national. China’s surveillance state has since become so powerful that it is difficult to organize even citywide actions, making the geographic sweep of recent events all the more surprising. But the sheer scale of the protests—and the number of videos and social media posts they precipitated—overwhelmed the country’s censors.

In every city, protesters held up blank sheets of white paper, a nod to the 2020 Hong Kong demonstrations. That gesture had called attention to the fact that the Chinese government had made most political slogans illegal. The fact that the sheets were now spreading to the mainland was likely extremely concerning for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It proved that China’s violent suppression of Hong Kongers’s freedoms was known outside the island; worse, that mainlanders were now willing to sympathize and stand in solidarity.

Unlike what had happened at the iPhone factory a few days earlier, this latest round was not followed by violent suppression. Instead Chinese officials took a softer approach, with police erecting plastic barriers to prevent demonstrators from regrouping. But the protestors largely had no need. By the following Monday, many major cities began lifting some (if not all) of their Covid restrictions. On December 7, the National Health Commission drastically rolled back Covid restrictions: those with asymptomatic and mild cases can now isolate at home; entire apartment complexes can no longer be locked down; workplaces will remain open; and, in a nod to the tragedy in Ürümqi, fire exits and fire routes cannot be blocked.

While the achievement of the protests should not be minimized, China’s future is not necessarily bright. According to most experts, China’s Covid death rate will likely explode over the next three months, with close to one million deaths predicted, largely because of the low vaccination rate among the elderly. Shockingly, China never mandated vaccinations. When in early 2022 the omicron variant slipped into Hong Kong, another territory that practiced zero Covid and had a lightly vaccinated elderly population (20 percent of those over eighty), it went in just a single month from having the lowest Covid death rate in the world to one of the highest. China has a higher vaccination rate among its elderly (65.8 percent of those over eighty) but the shots are the less effective Sinovac. (The Chinese government allows its population to be jabbed only with its domestically manufactured vaccine.) Why the Chinese government, during the three years it closed itself off from the world, chose not to vaccinate its population with mRNA vaccines remains a mystery. It hardly comports with Xi’s claim of putting “people and lives above all else.”

Whatever happens in China in the next few months, Westerners are unlikely to see images of overrun hospitals and overflowing morgues. Foreign observers may have celebrated the bravery and technological ingenuity of the protestors, but from the perspective of the CCP, the protests revealed dangerous cracks in the country’s internet firewall. How else could so many protesters post on officially blocked foreign social-media sites like Twitter? How did they know about Hong Kongers’ use of blank sheets of paper as a protest tool?

Expect the CCP to target virtual private networks (VPNs), currently the only way for Chinese citizens to “jump” the firewall and connect to a free internet. Illegal since 1997, VPNs are at the moment tacitly allowed by the Chinese government. Chinese businesses and universities simply could not function without access to many of the websites blocked in China. It may very well be that fallout from the Covid protests will be enough to scare the CCP into fully enforcing the law and truly shutting down the Chinese people’s only unsurveilled contact with the outside world. Prosecutions for VPN usage have increased over the past few years, and reports have emerged that Chinese police are currently searching protestors’ phones for banned foreign apps.

Even if Xi is willing to roll back his zero-Covid policy, he is not about to relent on the brutal tactics that have enabled him to tighten his grip on power. Censorship, surveillance, and suppression of dissent are all likely to increase in the months and years ahead. Even as Chinese society emerges from lockdowns, its online life will be ever more restricted. Still, China’s people give reason for hope. They’ve just proved themselves more unruly than Xi had imagined. Their recent successes online and in the streets could embolden them to continue their resistance.

Published in the January 2023 issue: 

Elizabeth M. Lynch is the founder and editor of China Law & Policy.

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