An unusually outspoken wave of protests recently mobilised against the Chinese government’s stifling response to COVID-19, an exercise in social control that included strict lockdowns, causing severe hardship. The government tried to restrict the protests but then backed down and eased the rigid rules it had consistently applied since the start of the pandemic. Just after being confirmed as the all-powerful leader of the party-state, President Xi Jinping for the first time showed signs of weakness. Long deprived of agency, mobilised people have now had a taste of power. Will they keep testing the limits and trying to open up spaces?

Something unusual just happened in China: people protested against an unpopular government policy, and some even criticised the totalitarian regime. And a government famous for its intransigence was forced to back down.

Zero covid

China was the first country struck by COVID-19, and since the early days, the government’s approach has been rigid. Its ‘zero-covid’ policy of long lockdowns, forced isolation in quarantine camps and widespread mandatory testing helped keep a lid on the virus. Domestically and internationally, the government sold its approach as a triumph, comparing it to the high death toll in countries like the USA. But its approach also brought misery to communities forced into lengthy isolation and unable to access essentials.

The authoritarian regime fell back on its instincts of social control and used the emergency as an opportunity to test out further repressive measures, including new surveillance tools. The state was also criticised for using the policy as a cover for a slow and inadequate vaccination rollout, exacerbated by a refusal to accept foreign vaccines because it needed to present the vaccines developed in China as part of its success story, even though these likely have little effect on the most recent variants of the disease.

The long-term implementation of zero-covid brought significant economic impacts, threatening the source of China’s global power. In its response to the pandemic, as in other spheres – including its clampdown on the tech and entertainment industries – it seemed that when faced with a choice between economic prowess and social and political control, the government consistently chose the latter.

Centrally mandated policies were often overzealously implemented at the local level, as local officials stuck to the most extreme possible interpretation of the rules: years of experience of working within state structures had taught them this was the best way to signal their loyalty.

Deeper than the pandemic

The protests weren’t the first recent expression of dissent. Small-scale online and offline protests are less rare in China than might be expected given the Chinese regime’s mission of total control. Shanghai’s April lockdown, which saw people go hungry, sparked considerable anger, expressed on social media despite the extensive efforts of the government’s well-rehearsed censorship machinery to suppress it.

Even ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) congress, the twice-a-decade peak meeting of the ruling party held in October, two protest banners were briefly hung in Beijing, and enjoyed a much longer social media afterlife. Restrictions in an Apple iPhone factory led to protests in November, suppressed with security force beatings.

But the anti-zero-covid protests were on a whole other level. The trigger was the breakout of a fire on 24 November in an apartment block in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province. This is the region where the state is engaged in a long campaign of industrial-level human rights abuses against the mostly Muslim population, which perhaps not coincidentally has also been exposed to some of the longest and strictest lockdowns.

The story that spread after the fire, in which at least 10 people died, was that a strictly enforced lockdown, including locked doors and blocked emergency exits, had stopped people fleeing the building and first responders getting in. It still isn’t clear what happened, but the story spread quickly because it spoke to something people have long been feeling: that the state was prepared to sacrifice them for the sake of zero-covid. It wasn’t the first piece of evidence. In September, 27 people had been killed in a bus crash while being transported to a compulsory quarantine centre.

The Urumqi fire was a catalyst for the expression of a shared grievance over pandemic controls, and for suppressed anger about a lot more. Anger was intensified by a victim-blaming statement from an official that the residents should have understood fire safety procedures better.

Awareness that the rest of the world has largely moved on from Chinese-style restrictions may have played a part too. In February, China’s Winter Olympics took place under strict protocols. But more recently people have seen the World Cup kicking off in Qatar with thousands sitting in stadiums and little sign of mask use, despite efforts by China’s state broadcaster to censor crowd close-ups. The fact that even other repressive global south states have moved on made it impossible to pretend China was now anything other than an outlier.

Protests started in Xinjiang and quickly spread over several days to some of China’s biggest cities, including Beijing. Protests brought hundreds of people together, large numbers given the many restrictions. Many held up blank pieces of paper, something that offered an eloquent protest symbol, communicating the almost total denial of freedom of expression. Protesters chanted a line from China’s national anthem: ‘rise up, those who refuse to be slaves’.

Ominously for the government, protests quickly went beyond frustration with the zero-covid policy. When people chanted for freedom, it started to mean something bigger. Some protesters demanded free expression and democracy, and some called for China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, to step down, denouncing the personality cult he has cultivated.

Predictably the state reacted with its usual suite of repressive tactics, including widespread detentions, blocking of protest sites and a crackdown on the use of virtual private networks. Police started tracking down people who took part in protests, searching their phones for banned apps, such as the Telegram messaging app. Police made people who had taken pictures of protests delete them. Chinese media meanwhile largely ignored the events.

Government blinks first

Lack of media coverage of the protests must have made it seem odd when the government then reversed its zero-covid policy. Suddenly, state media announced, the virus was no longer severe, meaning restrictions could be eased. Major cities dropped requirements to show negative tests to access public spaces. Testing booths shut down. National-level guidance issued on 7 December told officials to no longer institute widespread lockdowns and allowed for people to quarantine at home rather than in government centres and travel more freely within China.

The term ‘zero-covid’ appears to no longer be in use. The government has, of course, not been able to admit it has backed down in response to protests, and instead presents the change as an outcome of the success of its policy.

The government may have calculated that it could afford to relax tight controls now the CCP congress that confirmed Xi’s total grip on state power is safely in the rear-view mirror. But it may have painted itself into a corner. The government always proclaimed that its zero-covid policy was the only path to take. Now it’s no longer saying that, leaving it looking fallible.

If the easing of restrictions leads to a dramatic increase in the death toll, people are likely to blame the state. And if the regime needs to reimpose restrictions at a later stage, how willing will the public be to trust Xi and go along with them again?

Ominously for the government, protests quickly went beyond frustration with the zero-covid policy. When people chanted for freedom, it started to mean something bigger.

His CCP congress triumph means that Xi is now the face of the party and state. He can claim all the successes, but he must also take responsibility for any failures. Having reached the zenith of his power at the CCP congress, history suggests the only way will be down.

Recent events should put paid to any notion that authoritarian rule is necessarily more efficient than democratic government, as well as any myth that Chinese people are content with their country’s political system. For now, the novelty of the easing of restrictions may well lessen pressure on the state, as people start to enjoy doing things they haven’t been able to for a long time. But some won’t forget that they have flexed their muscles and made the state give ground. What will they demand next?


  • The government of China should release anyone detained for protesting.
  • International civil society should support Chinese activists by helping share their stories through channels out of reach of Chinese state censorship and surveillance.
  • Businesses with interests in China should refuse to be instrumental in acts that enable repression, including censorship, data gathering and surveillance.

Cover photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters via Gallo Images