In the past week, Chinese authorities have reportedly begun tactically bargaining with citizens to quash dissent erupting across the country. Massive protests have seen people of all demographics united in outrage over the draconian Covid lockdown policies of the past two years. There have been huge rallies in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, and Chengdu, with as many as 50 of China’s universities seeing students defiantly taking to the streets.
More than a week into these street protests, China’s National Health Commission responded by rolling back zero-Covid policies. Those who test positive no longer have to be quarantined in camps and people no longer have to prove their Covid status to gather in public spaces. Traveling within the country is also being loosened. The speed at which China is opening demonstrates that the outcry from the public is working. “Zero Covid is almost over, there’s still a way to go,” wrote a protester on Telegram. “We need the world to keep paying attention.”
To understand China’s most widespread unrest in decades, Rolling Stone interviewed a number of young people there in the past week (out of concerns for their safety, we are not revealing their real names). Despite differing perspectives, everyone we spoke with agrees that this is the critical moment to decide how they will proceed in the face of the authorities.
Amy works in the tech industry in Shanghai, having recently graduated university in the United States. She says she’s determined to document the protests, inspired by people courageous enough to voice their opinions. “People want to make changes under the regime,” she says, “and they deserve those changes.”
At a rally in Shanghai, where peaceful protesters sang the People’s Republic of China’s National Anthem ‘March of the Volunteers,’ Amy saw a young man being beaten up by the police and taken away in a large van as officers dispersed the crowd.
Amy describes seeing a young woman who refused to leave: “She was in tears, pleading with two police officers.” Earlier, the young woman’s husband had been seized by the authorities and she did not know where he had been taken. “She couldn’t get through to him on the phone.”
Bearing witness to the aggressive police response to peaceful protests has left Amy shaken. She says she also saw a young man who was holding a bouquet of flowers and throwing the petals into the street grabbed by the police. Then protesters surrounded the police, shouting , “Release him!”
At the rally, Amy’s phone stopped working. “I asked the people around me and they also said they couldn’t get a signal,” she says. Someone claimed that this was the authorities jamming phones to prevent communication.
Despite the state surveillance and risk, Amy says she will continue to film the rallies as long as they keep happening. Amy’s friends are worried about her participation in the protests and her presence online, blogging her thoughts and sharing videos with journalists.
“One said I’m putting myself in danger while not achieving anything,” she says. “But my view is that the risks can be contained. I believe in freedom of the speech and freedom of the press. Besides, they’re also technically written in the People’s Republic of China’s constitution.” She adds firmly, “What I’m doing is law abiding.”
The protests began when a group of people gathered on Nov. 24 to hold a memorial for the 10 people who were killed in an apartment block fire in Urumqi, the capital of the western Xinjiang region, where Covid restrictions have been in place since August. There were reports that some of the fire victims were trapped after being locked in their homes because they had tested positive for coronavirus.
The agonizing circumstances of how the people died and the government’s response to the fire sparked a wave of national defiance. The open rebellion has seemingly come as a massive shock to Chinese authorities unfamiliar with such a furious backlash. In the face of the anger, the authorities have deployed riot police and the harshest crackdowns on freedom of speech and censorship across the internet. But this hardline has done nothing to abate the anger.
“A single spark can start a prairie fire,” Song, an e-commerce worker in Shanghai tells me, quoting a traditional Chinese saying. “The Chinese Communist Party likes to use this idiom to praise their achievements in the past.”
“The protests have awakened many of us,” Song continues. “It will become more wild and finally make a difference. Many people have realized they actually can do something. They can fight for their own and others’ interest.”
Song is out of work this month. The lockdown led to unstable employment across the e-commerce sector. He thinks that once the restrictions are lifted and people can make money again, the protests are going to dwindle.
Song attended a rally on the streets of Shanghai the same night as Amy did. “At the beginning of the protest, the police were standing away from the protesters who were shouting their demands,” he says. The crowds chanted for an end to Covid lockdowns and for General Secretary Xi Jinping to step down as leader of the country.
By the second day, Nov. 28, things began to escalate. The police started to block streets and targeted people who stood out from the crowd by holding blank pieces of paper. The “A4 revolution” or “white paper revolution” as it is known has largely been spread by social media, with photographs of people holding up the symbolic blank pieces of paper. The message of defiance is effective — images of white paper are much harder to censor than frequently used terms like “Shanghai.”
Song draws the comparison to the Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989. “For the first time in 30 years, people in mainland China have started fighting against dictatorship for their human rights.”
He adds, “At that time they had more rights for freedom of speech. In 1989, they were asking for the revolution of the whole system, and this is much more unlikely to achieve in today’s China.”
Song calls himself and his friends “victims” of China’s strict Covid policies. “We don’t have a normal life anymore. We haven’t been able to go out without Covid tests. We got locked up at home for no reason. We can’t express our feelings online or offline. We have had enough of not being treated like humans.”
Unlike Amy and Song, Konrad is an outspoken, proud Chinese patriot based in Shanxi, a province in the North of China. He’s skeptical that the protests would be able to yield any results: “In some places, there are people with ulterior motives trying to take advantage of these issues to demand the Communist Party step down and split China.”
A common loyalist refrain on Chinese social media is that “foreign agents” are behind the protests — deliberately disrupting order in society. Konrad believes this could be possible. “I don’t think this should be tolerated, to hurt China and divide her.” He adds, “There may be some people with ulterior motives in the foreign media, but no matter what they say, I will not change my love for the motherland.”
Online censorship in China has been the most severe it has ever been since the protests began, to the extent that Konrad’s parents were oblivious to the widespread protests. “My family only knew about it after hearing [me talk about it]. My university classmates didn’t know about it at all, and there was no report about it on Chinese social media and entertainment software, so the Chinese government must have concealed this matter to the greatest extent.”
The crackdown on information sparked Konrad’s curiosity and led him to find out as much as he can about what is going on. He uses a VPN to access news beyond China’s internet firewall. He admits the videos of police brutality have made him question his beliefs, including a video of six Covid enforcers dressed in white personal protection suits beating a young man with sticks in an alleyway.
“When I saw this video, my heart ached,” he says. “Armed police beating unarmed helpless people. How could the police do this?”
Besides, he understands where a lot of the anger people are feeling is coming from. “I have seen a lot of things in this pandemic that I usually cannot accept, such as people resisting the authorities and attempts to suppress governance.”
Despite this, Konrad calls the A4 protesters “brave fighters.”
“I don’t agree with their methods, but they deserve my respect. Their rebellion has meant my city has gradually lifted the restrictions, and I can resume school and work. I think this is excellent. What makes me even more emotional is, why has my country become what it is now? My faith has been shaken and now has completely collapsed overnight. I really hope we can change back and return to a strong motherland before the pandemic.”
Something Konrad cannot forget are the videos of Covid enforcers welding shut the entrance of a residential building in Chengdu. “It’s inhumane,” he says.
The authorities issued a response, proclaiming that the videos were fake. “Everyone knows what they have done, but they still try to cover it up,” Konrad says. “This is something that the people cannot accept.”
The sealing of buildings from the outside to keep residents in was a zero-Covid policy that allegedly happened in Urumqi — which made the apartment building fire as deadly as it was.
China’s zero-Covid policies can be rolled back at scale, but Konrad is anguished about the Urumqi fire: “You can’t protest this — we can’t change the fact that they are dead.”
There has been no official confirmation of the deaths of the victims, but on Chinese social media, tributes have been paid to the people who have died, including a mother and four of her children.
Konrad says, “The youngest child was only three years old. They were born in the pandemic, grew up in the pandemic, and finally died in the pandemic. The child wasn’t even able to come into the world to take a good look.”
“Sharky” is a high school student in the north of Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai. He became radicalized when he watched people take part in the A4 paper protests. “That really inspired me.”
Sharky has been planning a rally with others on Telegram. “It is risky, but I don’t give a fuck.”
He’s been showing his classmates videos of protesters in Shanghai from his laptop at school.
Sharky’s classmates think protesting is a frightening prospect. “Most of them won’t join the protest for safety reasons,” he says. “I get it. This can affect your whole life if you get caught.”
Some of his teachers have mentioned the protests to their students in the classroom before lessons begin. “My teachers are not fools. They know the limits of what they can say.”
His parents have warned him not to post anything controversial online. “‘Don’t be used as a tool for the Western power,’” Sharky repeated.
Sharky doesn’t know how many protesters will show up — he estimates about 50. “We will stand in the street and hold up a blank A4 paper. If the police come, we can just say it is performance art.”
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Sharky says that the group of protesters he is planning to meet are mostly high school and university students. He is awed by them and calls them “pioneers.” “They are real heroes,” he says, “with everything to lose.”