Updated Nov 28, 2022 - World

China maintains zero-COVID despite unprecedented protests

People hold white sheets of paper in Beijing yesterday to protest COVID restrictions.

Protesters hold white sheets of paper in Beijing yesterday in a demonstration against COVID restrictions. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Despite stunning nationwide protests, China's government is sticking with the zero-COVID policies that have rocked the economy and deeply damaged people's trust.

Why it matters: Skyrocketing COVID cases in China mean that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will likely be forced to choose between plunging his country back into the draconian lockdowns — or abandoning his signature pandemic policy as crowds of protesters call for him to step down.

The state of play: Chinese state media continued to praise zero-COVID measures on Monday, signaling no change in official policy.

  • Chinese authorities have not yet taken strong measures to crush the protests, such as mass arrests or the widespread deployment of security forces, though residents and police clashed in Shanghai.
  • Online censors, usually efficient at sanitizing dissent from Chinese social media, are struggling to delete the deluge of posts and videos criticizing the government's policies.

Worth noting: Authorities in several cities on Monday announced the easing of some public health restrictions. In Beijing, city officials said they would no longer erect gates to cordon off access to apartment blocks where COVID cases had been detected, AP reported.

  • A city official in Beijing said passages should remain clear for "medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” per AP.
  • In Guangzhou, a major manufacturing hub and hotspot in the country's latest infection resurgence, authorities said some residents would no longer need to undergo mass testing due to a need to conserve resources, per AP.
  • Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, announced that public bus service would resume and that markets and other businesses located in areas considered low risk for COVID infection would be allowed to reopen.

Reality check: Although protests of this scale are unprecedented since Xi assumed power in 2012, China is a long way from anything like regime change.

  • The Chinese ruler has full control of the political apparatus and the military, and there's no meaningful organized opposition.

What they're saying: "Our message to peaceful protesters around the world is the same and consistent: People should be allowed the right to assemble and peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday at a press briefing.

  • "The White House supports the right of peaceful protest," he added when asked if the White House supports the protesters.

What's happening: Outrage boiled over in cities across China after a fire last Thursday killed 10 people in a locked-down residential compound in Urumqi, Xinjiang, where some residents have been in quarantine for more than 100 days.

  • The deadly incident was only the latest in a string of deaths linked to lockdowns when residents were denied timely access to emergency services and medical care, including a 4-month-old who died earlier this month.
  • A candlelight vigil on Friday night in Shanghai turned into a demonstration against COVID restrictions. On Saturday and late into the night on Sunday, protests spread across at least eight cities, including Beijing and Wuhan.
  • While most protesters demanded an end to the arbitrary restrictions, some went further by calling for Xi to step down, according to videos posted on social media — a remarkably rare public attack against a leader who has spent the past ten years crushing dissent.

What to watch: The next few days are key. If protests keep spreading, the Chinese Communist Party's governing logic will demand a crackdown to — in the words of Mao Zedong — prevent a single spark from becoming a prairie fire.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional developments.

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