Excitement and defiance for Chinese youth at COVID ‘tipping point’ protests

By | December 1, 2022

HONG KONG/BEIJING, Nov 30 (Reuters) – When Yang, an office worker in Shanghai, saw video clips of a burning building in western China, a disaster in which 10 people died, she said she could not contain her anger because of Covid-19. -19 measures three years after the start of the pandemic.

Watching a World Cup soccer match in a Shanghai bar two days later with her boyfriend, she saw calls on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app, for a public rally to mourn the victims. She raced her bicycle to participate.

“Things came to a head, we had to leave,” Yang, 32, who declined to be identified by her full name for fear of reprisals, told Reuters.

Six young people who spoke to Reuters from four cities across China – all immersing themselves in activism for the first time – describe a mix of euphoria, fear and defiance after a busy weekend and increased security.

While united against China’s stifling “zero-COVID” measures, all six also spoke of a yearning for broader political freedoms, 33 years after students occupied China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

When Yang arrived at the meeting, small crowds were harassing the lines of police positioned under the mottled plane trees on Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region where the fire broke out.

Authorities denied that the deaths in the fire were linked to lockdown measures that blocked the victims’ escape.

“We don’t want masks, we want freedoms,” sang Yang, using her phone to share photos, videos and posts on Twitter, Telegram and Instagram – apps not accessible on the mainland without a virtual private network, which she installed.

As the hours passed, the chants got bolder.

“Down with the Chinese Communist Party,” people chanted, some taking off their masks. “Down with Xi Jinping!”

But much of the public frustration is directed at President Xi’s COVID-zero policy, not him or the ruling party.

While many in China supported the policy, which spared it the ravages of a virus that has killed millions elsewhere, significant frustration rose as a new wave of infections led to the return of widespread lockdowns.

A senior health official said on Tuesday that public complaints about the restrictions stemmed from overzealous implementation rather than the measures themselves, and authorities would continue to adjust policies to reduce the impact on society.

China has mostly relied on domestically produced vaccines, which some studies have suggested may not be as effective as some foreign ones, meaning lifting COVID measures could come with major risks, some experts say.

‘FIRST TIME’

Considering himself part of a small “liberal bubble” in Shanghai – China’s most cosmopolitan city – Yang had little idea that so many people shared his frustrations in a country that has grown increasingly authoritarian in the decade since Xi took power.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve done something like this,” she said. “In my heart, I’ve muttered these things thousands of times, but to hear these slogans suddenly sung by so many real people was both emotional and shocking to me.”

For many in other cities, the COVID lockdowns have exacerbated a sense of powerlessness.

“The protests are happening because, under COVID prevention measures, people are not able to meet their fundamental needs to survive,” said Jiayin, who took part in a demonstration in Guangzhou, a southern city with some of the highest recent numbers of infections. from China.

There, over the weekend, people crowded onto a bridge connecting two blockaded districts and sang a Cantonese song called “Sky” by Hong Kong band Beyond, which was very popular with Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. in 2019.

More than 2,000 km to the north, students from elite universities were also mobilizing.

Cheng, a 23-year-old social sciences student who was with hundreds on the campus of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater, stressed that it was the duty of the elite to lead the push for social justice.

“I’m very proud to be able to face China’s best youngsters and speak for everyone,” said Cheng.

She and other young protesters are tech-savvy, with many communicating via Telegram in amorphous, anonymous and decentralized acts of defiance, echoing Hong Kong’s leaderless pro-democracy protests in 2019.

They found support from foreign groups and online organizers, providing know-how about information security and how to evade censors.

‘OVERLOAD’

The morning after her protest, Yang took care of her household chores after sleeping for three hours and spent the day glued to her phone, posting nonstop. She sometimes scolded friends who urged her to be “reasonable” and avoid the protests.

In a post, she wrote, “In an irrational reality, being rational and using logical words is far from adequate.”

“My brain felt overloaded with information and my mood wasn’t stable,” she said.

With police in several cities now checking people’s phones for apps like Telegram, however, and calling some people in for interviews, Yang said she would keep quiet for the time being, using a clean “recorder” phone to leave.

“At this stage it is better to wait a bit.”

Despite the risks, Dai’an, who identifies as a feminist and lives in the southwestern city of Chengdu, says she is driven by a “very simple sense of justice”.

“The worst thing is that you’ll be stuck, right? But it’s better than facing day-to-day reality and then not being able to do anything, and then feeling sorry for yourself.”

She participated in a protest on Wangping Street, chosen because its name means “looking at the ping”, an allusion to Xi Jinping.

“I don’t feel like I’m making history,” Cheng said. “But we live in history every day. I will always remember that.”

Reporting by James Pomfret, Martin Quin Pollard and Jessie Pang; Written by James Pomfret; Editing by Tony Munroe

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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