ASPI explains: The protests rocking China

China is being rocked by the worst civil protests since those that culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In this explainer, Daria Impiombato, an analyst at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, interviews Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, an independent researcher and ASPI senior fellow, about what is happening across the country and what the demonstrations mean for the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. The following is an edited transcript of the interview on our Policy, Guns and Money podcast.

Daria Impiombato: How rare is such a wave of protests in China? Is it fair to say it is the biggest act of civil disobedience since Tiananmen Square?

Vicky Xu: Definitely. We haven’t seen anything like it since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests by the students. What I’m hearing is that even people in China on the ground are saying this is very similar to what happened 30 years ago. It is extremely significant. For me, as someone born and raised in China and who remains very connected to China, it’s unimaginable. I’m so excited about it.

Impiombato: You’ve interviewed a few people on the ground, including a protester for your own podcast, Speaking Till the End. Who are these protesters? Is it mainly young people, students, or is it more of a mix?

Xu: From what I’m hearing, the protesters are mostly young people, mostly university students and some professionals. There are older people, but they are the minority. Women have played an especially strong role. When I’ve asked why are they protesting, why are they risking everything—their lives, their safety, their futures, their careers—to take to the streets and express their anger and frustration about the Chinese Communist Party, they’re literally quoting people from 30 years ago. They’re saying, ‘It’s my duty,’ which is a very famous line from the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

Impiombato: That is quite inspiring, knowing how severe the surveillance apparatus is these days—which brings me to my next question about tactics. How are these protesters even managing to organise and to skirt the overpowering information control within China?

Xu: There have been a number of stages. What essentially inspired this wave of protests was that, before the 20th CCP congress, there was this lone man in Beijing protesting against the Chinese government (people believe his name may be Peng Zaizhou but no one has been able to confirm it). He held up a banner that said the Chinese people need to stop doing so many Covid-19 tests every day, and they need to eat. And he called President Xi Jinping a dictator. So that one-man protest essentially sparked what now seems to be a political movement. Chinese people, especially young people, started sending messages and photos and slogans about that one-man protest to each other via Apple AirDrop.

People know that there’s censorship and people know that the government is watching, but AirDrop is a clever way to share information without using the internet and without leaving any record. The government noticed, and I assume the government gave Apple an ultimatum, because in the end, Apple changed rules for AirDrop in China so that Chinese people could no longer use it as a way of organisation.

Then there is Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, which is useful for organising. This is the same used in Iran and in Hong Kong in 2019. Unfortunately, my understanding is that a lot of these Telegram groups now have been infiltrated by Chinese cops. So now people are also relying on old-fashioned and decentralised methods such as just posting a picture saying, ‘I’m here,’ or grabbing a piece of paper, a sheet of blank paper, standing outside and waiting for others to join.

At Tsinghua University—which is like China’s Harvard—a few days ago there was one young woman who held up a blank sheet of paper and stood outside. And that actually inspired, from what I read, more than 1,000 students to follow suit. They didn’t use the internet, they didn’t use any technology to organise that. It’s remarkable.

Impiombato: It’s even more significant that it happened at Tsinghua because it is also the breeding ground for CCP leaders and is Xi Jinping’s alma mater.

Xu: Indeed. And the CCP is actually very, very wary of student protests, given what happened in 1989 and given how these universities were breeding grounds for radical ideas. Whenever there’s the dissent brewing in China, especially in Beijing, there would be a lot of police officers sent to these campuses to watch and to crack down, so the students know what they’re getting into. But they’re doing it anyway. Again, nobody has seen anything like it in 30 years.

Impiombato: The protests were initially mainly focused on Covid restrictions, and there was a huge wave of anger after a building fire in the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, that killed at least 10 people. Those deaths were blamed on the Covid lockdown. But now it’s also become a protest about freedom of expression. To what extent do you think the protests reflect deeper anger about broader issues and about the CCP?

Xu: As you said, the catalyst was the fire in Urumqi. People were saying that at least 10 residents were trapped in a building that was locked down and they weren’t able to get out, and they burned to death. The officials deny this account. But nonetheless, this event really fired a lot of people up. This is after many, many more deaths that people blame ‘Covid zero’ for—many suicides, accidents, so many deaths.

One protester from Shanghai that I spoke to in my podcast joined what he initially thought was a vigil for the lives lost in the Urumqi fire. He saw all these people with flowers, following the Chinese tradition of pouring alcohol onto a sort of shrine. But then as more people gathered, they became galvanised and inspired each other and the anger and frustration multiplied.

Some people started yelling slogans like, ‘Stop Covid zero’. Shanghai residents really suffered for a number of months this year. Many people didn’t have access to food and medicine.

That very quickly shifted to, ‘Down with the communist party’ and ‘Down with Xi Jinping’, because everyone knows deep down that Covid-zero policy is a product of the communist party and is basically determined by one man’s will.

According to protesters I’ve spoken to, there are many different factions. Not everyone has the same political aspirations. Moderate people just want to change the Covid-zero policy, while other people think we need a new government and we need a new leader. It’s like the Hong Kong protest or like any other mass struggle: there is a range of opinions and thoughts.

Impiombato: And especially, as you said, with women being at the forefront, I’m sure there are reasons for that. There are additional grievances that Chinese women would be feeling with the three-child policy, for example—this pressure to bear children, not being represented politically. Also just not being able to express themselves, especially the feminist movement in China, which has received continuous crackdowns during the years.

And then there are ethnic minority groups that have been suffering for many, many years that would have grievances against Han Chinese that haven’t been so vocal about what was going on in Xinjiang, for example, and haven’t been really able to support Uyghurs against CCP oppression. Do you think that’s affecting coordination within the protest movements?

Xu: I think you’re completely right. There are women who feel as if the protest itself is not pro-women, and there are Uyghurs who have grievances that being locked up in concentration camps has never sparked the same kind of anger among mainland Chinese people. There definitely are factions. Overall, many protesters seem to realise that they have to work with each other. The protesters seem to be borrowing a lot of lessons from the 2019 Hong Kong protests. The word in Mandarin is ‘不割席’, or ‘do not split’ in English. Basically, they try to stay united and they don’t divide themselves. That is extremely important.

Impiombato: Has the reaction of the Chinese authorities been milder than people might have expected so far, and why that might be the case?

Xu: So far, many students have been arrested. Some have been released. Some have been sent to quarantine centres. The security apparatus seems to be struggling to keep up with suppressing the protests. For example, we are seeing a lot of recruitment ads for auxiliary police. It seems like police officers have been playing catch-up. In Shanghai, police officers are getting onto subways and checking people’s phones, one by one, to see if they have any anti-revolutionary material on their phones.

We don’t know yet what’s going to happen, because this is developing. We don’t yet know how the communist party at the highest level is interpreting the events. It’s likely that foreign forces would be blamed again, as though the Chinese people cannot possibly have their own agency and cannot possibly want a different government. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a month or two months’ time, all the protesters would be accused of colluding with the CIA.

Personally, I’m really, really afraid for the protesters because they’re really brave, but a lot of them are not wearing a mask. They’re on the front line, they’re not really thinking about their personal safety, and they’re getting into these physical struggles with the police. Personally, I wish protesters could do more to protect themselves and their faces. But again, people have different opinions on this.

Impiombato: I had been thinking about this as well. There are several groups within China that are so used to being persecuted by the party-state that they would be so extremely careful with their identity. I think because this movement is broader than that, and it involves people who haven’t had that experience of community organising, they maybe don’t fully grasp the extent of the consequences.

Xu: I totally agree with you, Daria. People are inexperienced with activism and with how far the communist party would go to surveil and crack down. All over the world, Chinese students are organising protests to echo what’s happening in China. There are these large group chats where people are organising. Last week, I suggested to a group of students that they should try to wear a mask and protect themselves. Several people challenged my viewpoint and said if people in China are not wearing a mask, why would people outside China be worried that they’re being surveilled? They find it quite lame. Maybe compared to them I’m just too old and conservative now. I don’t know.

Impiombato: They’re just going all in. Maybe they feel there’s not much to lose at this point?

Xu: Yeah, they’re going all in.

Impiombato: Last question to wrap our conversation up: Do you think this movement is going anywhere? Is there any chance of change? Is the government going to loosen the Covid policies? Is it going to give in to any other requests?

Xu: The most honest answer I can give you is that I don’t know. Two weeks ago, if you asked me or asked any of the protesters—is it possible that Chinese people would be so fed up with Covid zero and with Xi Jinping that they would take to the streets to protest? Everyone would tell you that you’re crazy. But now the protests have happened and it has spread like wildfire.

Maybe there’s something there that everybody has just missed. Maybe the anger and frustration will be enough to cause real political change. Some people are speculating that maybe there are factional differences within the communist party, which is why the protests so far have been largely tolerated. And that’s possible too. We just don’t know.

I wish the protestors would gain something. I wish there would be significant changes and, at the very least, the Covid restrictions would drop. We don’t know, but I wish the protesters all the best.