Protests across China were initially triggered by the death of 10 people in an apartment block fire in Xinjiang. The demonstrations represented the biggest expression of public unrest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement was savagely crushed.
The blaze in the Xinjiang city of Urumqi in Northwest China was blamed on Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy. Those that died were reportedly prevented from leaving the burning building and their deaths have sparked an outpouring of grief and anger.
Many of the demonstrations have been led by students from at least 79 universities across 15 provinces of China, according to reports in the international media.
They have a range of grievances, high among them the zero-Covid policy. But, more broadly, many are protesting against the regime’s stifling of free speech and its heavy-handed political control. On one campus at Tsinghua University in Beijing, a video captured hundreds of students gathering to air their grievances.
One young woman made a speech saying:
If we dare not speak out because we are afraid of being arrested, I think our people will be disappointed with us. As a student of Tsinghua University, I will regret it for the rest of my life!
The protests have been dubbed the “A4 revolution” or the “blank paper revolution,” after students expressed their anger and discontent by holding up blank sheets of A4 paper. It symbolized the silencing of dissent, defiance, and rejection of state censorship and control.
Since the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement was crushed in the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, campus protests have been rare in China. This has drawn criticism from China expert Elizabeth Perry, of Harvard University, who has accused China’s academy of what she terms its “educated acquiescence.”
In a 2020 paper, How Academia Sustains Authoritarianism in China, Perry criticized students and academics alike for “acceding to political compliance in exchange for the many benefits conferred upon it by the state.” By doing this, she argued, academia has buttressed the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party regime.
But even before the fire in Xinjiang, discontent had been discernible on China’s university campuses. The growing anger at zero-Covid lockdowns only added to an undercurrent of unrest at deteriorating economic conditions, which has led to growing unemployment and a waning belief among young people in President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic “China Dream”.
Beijing has enforced lockdowns in different parts of the country almost continuously for three years. The chaotic and harsh measures across the country have caused huge disruption to everyday lives – not only the loss of freedom of movement but also food shortages.
There have also been various forms of psychological aftershocks.
As on many Western campuses, but on a much greater scale, students’ lives have been severely disrupted and there is widespread disillusionment in China. One tactic of demonstrators is the bizarre ritual that has become known as “collective crawling”.
Footage of students forming a circle and crawling around on their hands and knees has flooded social media. The ritual is designed to express frustration at the boredom of endless lockdown conditions, said to represent the attempt to use “meaninglessness to resist meaninglessness”.
Frustration over the gloomy economic outlook and associated grim job prospects are other significant factors. The Chinese government’s legitimacy centers on its economic performance and the 40 years of rapid growth delivered by the Communist Party.
Covid-19 has changed that and, unsurprisingly, the employment market has suffered. In July, the youth unemployment rate hit a record 19.9%. And, with 11.58 million students due to graduate into the job market next year, their prospects are not looking bright.
It’s a measure of how deeply this disenchantment is felt among young people that many are accusing the government of censoring coverage of the World Cup in Qatar because crowds there are not wearing masks.
The lockdowns and grim economic prospects are undermining confidence in Xi’s much-hyped nationalistic vision. We are now seeing even former supporters of the administration openly criticizing the zero-Covid policies on social media platform Weibo.
And some of the more daring young people protesting in China are voicing the unprecedented demand that “Xi Jinping step down”.
China’s unachievable zero-Covid policy is being hung around Xi’s neck. The Chinese leader has achieved a cult of personality and control not seen since the days of Mao Zedong and he was awarded an unprecedented third term as leader at the 20th party congress in October.
That essentially made him “ruler for life”. But what looks like a political miscalculation over the zero-Covid policy, which has no end in sight as infection numbers continue to rise to record levels, has brought him the most challenging test yet.
Students have now been sent home from their universities. And security services are working overtime to stifle dissent on the streets and in cyberspace. But Xi’s reputation is now tarnished, perhaps irrevocably.
And it’s hard to see these grievances on campuses and beyond simply disappearing quietly.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.