A coordinated protest wave across China, the country’s largest since the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989, has been instrumental in prompting the government’s policy shift on COVID-19. It’s a culmination of tensions that have been building for years.

Police form a cordon during a protest against China’s strict zero-COVID measures on November 27, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced its intention to move away from its zero-COVID policy; now, those with mild COVID-19 symptoms are permitted to quarantine at home rather than being forced to go to centralized quarantine facilities. Moreover, officials have also been instructed to stop launching temporary lockdowns, and there’s been a relaxation of testing and health code requirements for so-called cross-regional migrants.

The shift in policy came in response to weeks of protests across much of China, including in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, and in parts of the Xinjiang region. Those protests themselves were provoked by a fire that occurred in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, that is reported to have killed ten people and injured nine more, though many suspect the actual figure to be higher. Those deaths are widely attributed to the effect of harsh lockdown measures.

To discuss the protests and their background, Alex Doherty spoke with Jane Haywood, who teaches at the Lao China Institute at Kings College London. Their discussion ranges the widespread grievances and sporadic protests that have taken place in China over the last decade, the importance of the recent worker protests at the giant Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, and the broader economic policy shifts that have occurred in China since the 1970s.

Alex Doherty

These most recent protests were preceded by protests and rioting among factory workers in Zhengzhou who had been subject to the “closed-loop system,” whereby many workers have been forced to live on-site in order to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading further while also reducing the likelihood of businesses and supply chains being affected. Can you talk a bit about the background to the current protests, and their scale and distribution across the country?

Jane Haywood

Yes. We’ve seen that the protests are very much related to the lockdowns, but they are also coming out of a context of widespread dissatisfaction about many different issues. China hit upon a market-reform model after the Mao period, which was an export-led development model. It was based in manufacturing for largely foreign corporations in the special economic zones along the south and east coast, and it involved lots and lots of low-cost migrant workers largely coming in from the countryside, working in these factories, and making money for export.

There’s been widespread dissatisfaction in China for some time. And then came the latest lockdowns.

It brought in huge amounts of foreign direct investments, and it was hugely successful for a long time. But it was based on low-cost labor, so it was very difficult for China to move up the value chain as it was starting to develop high value-added products of its own alongside a large middle class founded upon a domestic consumer-based economy, which I think is ultimately the final aim.

Then came another shift in 2008 when the financial crisis hit. In an effort to keep the economy going Chinese policymakers started to allow state banks to pour huge amounts of cheap loans into state-owned enterprises, largely in construction, so as to produce jobs.

It was quite successful at keeping the economy going, preventing a massive crash. Thanks to all that government-backed debt going into the construction industry, accelerated urbanization occurred all over China. The way that the construction industry and urbanization work meant that there were a lot of land transfers.

Rural land was being transferred into urban land and then built on. This required local government involvement to allow those land transfers, creating a kind of alliance between local governments who are making revenue from those land transfers and urbanization, and real estate projects aligned with an increasingly strong real estate industry.

People in villages were losing their agricultural land, which was being used to build tower blocks, often against their will. Meanwhile, local officials are getting quite rich from land revenue.

This prompted protests because sometimes the transfers were based on dubious legality. People in villages were losing their agricultural land, which was being used to build tower blocks, often against their will. Meanwhile, local officials are getting quite rich from land revenue. They had strategies for dealing with the protests so that they didn’t spread across the country.

So there are all kinds of dispute resolution mechanisms that these processes are channeled into, or there are mechanisms by which officials are able to co-opt group leaders. But ultimately what you end up with is strong connections between construction, the real estate industry, and local government officials, and an economy that is largely based on government-backed debt, which is a real problem.

All of this is relevant because Xi Jinping then came along and decided to reorganize the economy so that it was no longer founded on state-backed debt. That challenged vested interests and caused problems for local governments who had been getting their money based on these land transfers.

This is what Xi Jinping and the leaders at the top of the Communist Party have been trying to do: rein in the state-backed debt. This caused huge problems in the property sector because once all that state-backed debt began to dry up, as it were, the property industry began to get very shaky. Since the summer of 2021, we’ve seen companies like Evergrande, which is a massive construction company, start to get into real trouble. I’ve seen figures that say the Chinese economy is something like 30 percent based on the construction industry in one way or another. So this is a massive shock to the entire economy.

It’s impacting people, and not only those in the construction industry. There are many in the middle class who were planning to buy their first homes. They had taken mortgages out on homes that weren’t built yet — and still aren’t. For months, long before the lockdown protests, there has been mortgage resistance, people refusing to pay their mortgages.

There’s been widespread dissatisfaction in China for some time. And then came the latest lockdowns.

Alex Doherty

In Shanghai, about twenty-seven million people have been locked down. This is almost like a country-scale lockdown.

Jane Haywood

Absolutely. As you mentioned earlier, this started off with the worker unrest at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. One of the extraordinary things about this protest, and one of the reasons that it is so significant, is that workers usually operate in an extremely oppressive, closed-loop system whereby they have no life at all outside of work. They can’t leave. They don’t know when they’re going to be able to leave. It’s bordering on a prison system. Then there were also rumors about people dying inside the plant, so they were worried for their health as well once COVID numbers started rising. They started to flee.

Alex Doherty

We should probably say that, of course, the West is implicated in this system since these factories are creating tech products for export.

Jane Haywood

Yes. The Foxconn factory, which is part of a Taiwanese company, is vast. It employs about 250,000 workers in it. It largely makes Apple products, iPhones in particular. One of the reasons why there’s been so much pressure on the factory workers is that they’re producing these brand-new Apple phones in the run up to Christmas. They’re absolutely desperate to make sure that they meet their production targets, which is only worsening conditions. Because local officials are so keen to make sure that Apple’s production quotas are satisfied, they have gone out and tried to get people at short notice to come and work in the plant, and they offered them very nice economic incentives to do that, bonuses and so forth.

The Foxconn protest was a fairly rare moment that produced cross-class connections, alliances, or mutual recognition. Those stuck in ongoing lockdowns had empathy for those working in such oppressive conditions.

When these people showed up and looked at their contracts, they weren’t being guaranteed what they were supposed to get. This meant that the factory was full with both workers who hadn’t fled, but were still very unhappy with the poor conditions, and very angry workers who had just arrived. It was this combination that led to the explosion of protests.

News of this traveled around the country and resonated with many. It was a fairly rare moment that produced cross-class connections, alliances, or mutual recognition. Those stuck in ongoing lockdowns had empathy for those working in such oppressive conditions.

That is really unusual to get it across different cities like that and across class boundaries. How far does it go? We don’t know yet, but the protests were huge. Just a few days after, there was a horrendous fire in Ürümqi in Xinjiang. The official number of deaths is ten, but it is very likely more than that. There were people in the surrounding tower blocks really watching it happen, listening and filming. And as you probably know, because it’s been in the press, a lot fire engines showed up, but for a couple of hours or so they could not get near enough to the building to put the flames out.

Alex Doherty

There were those terrible images of the water being directed at the fire, but not actually reaching it.

Jane Haywood

And there were recordings of Uyghur people inside the building calling for help in Mandarin, which is not the language they would normally use at home, but it’s because they were calling for the local officials to let them out. There are accounts from people living around those buildings who say that local officials were actually locking people into their own apartments. It wasn’t just the more run-of-the-mill lockdown regulations that they were being subjected to.

So cross-class solidarities are linking with a cross-ethnic connection because images of these awful scenes went around on social media. This was the moment that really sparked the protests in other places — the huge spate of protests across the country on that Saturday at the end of November, when people in Shanghai collected on Wulumuqi Road (which is the Chinese name for Ürümqi) in symbolic solidarity with the Uyghurs.

It’s not entirely clear how much acknowledgement there is that the lockdown in Xinjiang would’ve been on a whole other level from that in Shanghai, thanks to the years of Uyghur repression. The central government presents their treatment of Uyghurs in terms of counterterrorism measures.

Alex Doherty

And was justified by Beijing as actually being part of the so-called global war on terror. Right?

Jane Haywood

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, Uyghur and other Muslim people have been put into internment camps in an attempt to “civilize them” out of their religious ways of thinking. Authorities want to produce a client labor force unhindered by religious and cultural matters. I think very simplistically, that’s the logic behind it. There are some left and progressive groups that do express solidarity with the broader Uyghur plight, but it’s unclear to what extent this has helped drive the latest wave of protests.

Alex Doherty

How surprised were you to see messages of solidarity with Uyghurs being made elsewhere in the country? And does that suggest to you that the counterterrorism narrative that is used with regard to Xinjiang and the Uyghur population perhaps doesn’t have as much support across the country as might have been believed?

Jane Haywood

My understanding is that there is a lack of information among many people about what has been going on in Xinjiang. I also think a lot of people see exaggeration by Western media, for example, even though reports on internment camps are based on serious empirical studies. On the other hand, it does seem that a lot of Chinese people have concerns about what’s going on in Xinjiang and are asking questions. I think that even people who think that the state is doing the right thing in educating people out of their superstitious beliefs might well see it as a future security problem and therefore perhaps not the most rational thing to be doing.

Alex Doherty

Going back to the lockdowns, how much do you think there has been frustration with the lockdowns due to a growing awareness among Chinese citizens of just how unusual the zero-COVID policy is at this stage on the global level, and how rare lockdowns now are outside of the country? And it’s maybe worth mentioning here that some have suggested that the screening of World Cup matches showing large crowds of people in close quarters, not wearing masks while watching games and so on, may have contributed to that sense of frustration.

Jane Haywood

The World Cup is certainly very visible, which has probably rubbed it in for a lot of people. Beyond that, a lot of people are in touch with friends and relatives outside China. And they can of course read about it in the press.

News of this protest spread around the world because thousands of people were taking clips on their iPhones and posting them on social media, clips which then found their way out of the country before the censors could stop them. I did see one of an elderly woman in an urban residential complex saying to a crowd of neighbors: we should all stop wearing masks, they’re not wearing masks overseas and foreigners are looking down on us because we’re all stuck wearing masks. I thought that was quite striking.

Alex Doherty

For all the mental and physical harm that’s been caused by the lockdowns. China’s persistence in pursuing its zero-COVID strategy is not a crazy one given that the country’s health system is comparable to that of other middle-income countries. There’s a relative lack of ICU beds and not the number of health professionals, nurses in particular, that you would want, especially in rural areas. There is also the relative lack of vaccine uptake, particularly in the case of those over eighty years old.

Why do you think that the government and the Chinese state, which we know has very impressive mobilizing capacities, has failed to vaccinate the Chinese population at sufficient scale? Three years after the first detection of cases in Wuhan, the country is in this very unusual situation where it’s going to attempt to navigate out of zero-COVID without the level of vaccine protection that was the case in other states that took this path, such as Australia.

Jane Haywood

There is a lot of resistance to vaccines, partly because there were a lot of drug and food scandals in terms of dodgy production of substandard foods or dodgy products being put into food. There was a major vaccination scandal in 2018, which received a lot of publicity, about a private pharmaceutical company in China putting substandard chemicals into their products and then vaccinating large numbers of children.

Alex Doherty

There was that terrible 2008 baby formula scandal as well, which led to a number of deaths of young children.

Jane Haywood

Right. And there was a milk scandal as well while I was living there. These cases are widely talked about.

In addition to this, the government may have thought that if it tried to push through mandated vaccinations, that would itself lead to coordinated protests. That may be one reason why authorities were resistant to pushing it.

And there’s poor education. The state doesn’t seem to have gone out of its way to educate people about the benefits of vaccines. I was listening to a radio report yesterday where interviewees said that they didn’t understand why people who had been vaccinated were still getting COVID. They didn’t understand that the vaccine raises your immunity, but it doesn’t block infection completely. So they thought it was fraudulent.

Alex Doherty

The current wave of protests have been widely described as the largest and the most significant since the Tiananmen Square protest movement in 1989. What do you make of the comparison? You’ve pointed to the fact that protests are by no means unknown in China. This is not North Korea; it’s not a fiercely locked-down, totalizing, totalitarian state. And yet for the most part it’s the quite temporally distant protest movement of 1989 that is pointed to in the media, rather than any subsequent protests. Do you think the Tiananmen protest movement comparison is therefore somewhat lazy?

Jane Haywood

The scale of the protests and their prominence are really extraordinary, and we haven’t seen anything like it since Tiananmen. So in that sense the comparison is fair. But attempts to see these more recent protests as students calling for democracy or even indeed students calling for liberal democracy is, I think, problematic. I think it was oversimplistic coverage of what was actually going on in 1989, and I think it’s an oversimplistic coverage of what’s been going on this time as well.

Wang Hui, a very prominent scholar of the Left in China — who was a great analyst of the 1989 protests — highlighted the media coverage in liberal democracies that pointed to the student protestors and equated that with calls for the same kind of liberal democracies that we have in the UK and the United States. But in fact a lot of the protestors were people who had lost the rights that they had had in terms of social protections. As the market reforms had been unfolding throughout the 1980s, people had lost things like job security and all kinds of social welfare benefits.

Alex Doherty

This is the so-called iron rice bowl.

Jane Haywood

Exactly. People in urban areas during the Mao period would be attached to their work units. That was a job for life, and they would be supplied with all kinds of social benefits, schooling, and housing. They may not have been able to make huge amounts of money or have huge amounts of freedom in terms of where they could go and look for jobs or move around the country, but they were protected. As the market reforms took off, there were all kinds of benefits that came with them, but people’s lives became more insecure than they had been. And so among the protestors demands was more social protection from these market reforms.

This wasn’t a call for the return of socialism, but it was a call for a different kind of social and economic system than the one that was developing throughout the 1980s. There were calls for democracy, but as Wang Hui points out, some of these calls were for a more socialist kind of democracy based on stronger forms of social justice.

The press overseas didn’t pick up on these workers. It highlighted the student calls for democracy instead, equated those with calls for liberal democracy, and therefore misunderstood a really fundamental part of what the movement was about.

Framing the mass protests as students calling for liberal democracy was oversimplistic coverage of what was actually going on in 1989, and I think it’s an oversimplistic coverage of what’s been going on this time as well.

This time, there has been a strong focus on students calling for freedom of expression and rule of law, and there has been an implication, at least in some of those reports, that the demand is for liberal democracy, which is, again, oversimplifying.

Alex Doherty

The latest protests have been characterized by more of a focus on Xi Jinping and the Communist Party itself rather than just on local officials. How much of that do you think is just due to the more personalistic style of leadership that Xi Jinping has adopted, which has led to him being very closely identified with the zero-COVID strategy?

Jane Haywood

You’re referring, I think, to this particular social media video that went around a lot: there’s a protest on Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai where there’s a guy shouting, down with the Party, down with Xi Jinping. I don’t know of any other instances where that happened, but that video became extremely prominent. It was extraordinary to see because it’s so rare to see a call for the leader to step down. But I don’t know how widespread that particular call was.

The zero-COVID policy is very much associated with Xi, who promoted it as a flagship policy. So it’s not surprising that he would then become the target of protests about it.

Alex Doherty

What’s your sense of the broader risks, whether that’s incarceration or impact on people’s careers, involved for those engaging in protests?

Jane Haywood

Certainly incarceration is a threat at the more extreme end. Many people who had taken part in the protests have been called in and had all of their devices checked, not just for fingerprints but for samples of their voices. So they will likely be surveilled closely from now on.

Alex Doherty

And when it comes to left media, which particular sources would you recommend, especially for those who don’t speak or read Mandarin?

Jane Haywood

There is a group of loosely grouped scholars called “critical China scholars,” who are excellent. The group includes Eli Friedman, Rebecca Karl, and many others. There’s also a great online journal based at the Australia National University (although the editors are in different places around the world) called Made in China Journal. Chuang, a collective of activists inside China and overseas concerned with articulating the protests in an internationalist way and from the perspective of workers, is also really important.

This is an edited transcript from Politics, Theory, Other.

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