‘People want to live’: views from China on the Covid lockdown protests

Protests against China’s zero-Covid policy have continued in cities including Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu. The protests are a remarkable expression of defiance in a country where this type of public dissent is rare. They often feature people holding up blank sheets of paper, symbolising censorship.

Four people in various Chinese cities spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity to share their views on the protests.

‘I’ve seen very mixed reactions’

Yun*, living in Shanghai

“We were at the protest in the heart of Shanghai from around 2pm [on Sunday] to support the protesters. I was quite excited. It was perhaps 100 people to begin with and a reasonable amount of police officers. Over the next hour or so, the crowd grew to a few hundred people and more police. I saw people being taken away by police, and that BBC journalist who was arrested.

“It was a very mixed crowd, all ages. Protesters were chanting for the release of two cars full of people who were arrested on Saturday in a different protest. Police pushed them apart and closed the road.

People attend a protest in central Shanghai on Sunday
People attend a protest in central Shanghai on Sunday. Photograph: /Guardian Community

“I’ve seen very mixed reactions locally here in Shanghai. One man on the street said to me about the protests: ‘It’s all useless, you can change nothing. The world is right in saying we are cowards, we can’t do anything.’ On social media, I saw people shouting slogans such as ‘We want democracy, we’re against the single party rule’, and ‘Step down, Xi’.

“When I left our compound on Monday and went for a walk, to see whether people were talking about it all, a lot of people seemed to not actually know what was going on.”

‘You must have the appetite to find out what’s really happening’

Connor*, an expat and partner of Yun*, living in Shanghai

“Most of my colleagues are Chinese, and on Monday in the office it did feel as if people were quite aware of what’s going on. But most international news websites are blocked here. We use an illegal VPN to gain access, and a lot of younger people will find ways to get information. You must have the appetite to find out what’s really happening.

“On Monday evening we went for dinner very close to the junction where the protest happened, and you could sense that other diners were talking about it. Police have now built big blue barriers along the road [where the protest took place]. Shops were being shut down, some were taped off. It does really feel like they’re trying to prevent anything happening in the coming days.

Barriers along Middle Urumqi Road in Shanghai
Barriers along Middle Urumqi Road in Shanghai. Photograph: /Guardian Community

“We were under lockdown for two months between the end of March and May. After that was lifted, a whole building would go into lockdown for two days if a single person had been near a person who had come into close contact with someone who tested positive.

“This was relaxed a bit, so that it’s now only direct contacts [with an infected person] that can trigger a localised lockdown, not the contact of a contact of a contact. But we still have to use a green QR code in order to be allowed to do basically anything, from going to work, to entering a shopping mall.”

‘The zero-Covid policy cannot go on’

Wei*, in her 30s, in Tianjin

“Public protest on this scale is so unheard of for my generation – I’ve never witnessed such an amazing event taking part all across China. I followed the unfolding of the recent events on Twitter, but I didn’t attend any of the ‘white paper’ protests. Call it cowardice, but I don’t believe my presence will make any difference. Or anyone’s presence, really.

“The problem here is that the whole thing feels more like bouts of collective venting, which may as well turn into something thoughtful, well planned and purposeful, but until then it’s going nowhere.

“They don’t have a unified worldview. Some are shouting that they support the CCP [Chinese Communist party] but want democracy; in other parts, there are calls for Xi [Jinping, the president] to step down. Then there’s those triggered by the fire [in western China]. In China, it’s near impossible [to be unified] because social divides are too great. People want different things. [However], they all want accountability.

“Tianjin didn’t see major rallies. [On Twitter I saw] a few protesters with white paper on the main thoroughfare [of Tianjin]. I think we are not suffering the most so there have not been large protests. Here the lockdowns have been shorter and inflation is lower. [The situation] is unimaginable in some other parts of China.

“Since Friday we’ve been asked to do a daily PCR test – you get a notification on WeChat asking you to do a test. If you don’t have a negative test, you get a yellow code [which] renders you an outcast – you can’t go to grocery shops.

“I think the zero-Covid policy cannot go on no matter how heavily [the government] tread upon us. It’s bound to fail sooner or later. The economy is crumbling. People want to live. I think [these protests] may fizzle out but then there will be something else.”

‘The protests are very fragmented’

Denis*, an expat teacher in Chengdu

“I have been living here for almost 10 years. In Chengdu, the [Covid] case numbers are very high at the moment, higher than the previous time they had a citywide lockdown. Like many other things here, lockdown rules are a bit opaque. There is a more localised approach now, building by building, instead of the more sweeping lockdowns we had previously.

“A building in my community is currently under lockdown, and these can last three to five days, depending on the number of cases. People were locked in their apartments and there’s fencing around the building entrance, with people in PPE outside 24/7. They were doing tests every morning, outside each apartment.

“Right now many communities and buildings are in lockdown, but those that aren’t can move about relatively freely, provided they have had a test within 48 hours.

“I’ve been aware of recent, relatively isolated protests [elsewhere in the country], but when it happened in Chengdu I was shocked. Although, it didn’t come out of the blue: in my years here, I’ve seen that attitudes are clearly shifting. There’s a bigger diversity of thought, for instance with regards to gay people.

“The mood here is very hard to judge: generally, Chinese people are very proud of their country, nationalistic and patriotic. It’s very rare to hear dissidents speak openly. But more and more younger people are having their minds opened up a bit, mainly through international travel.

“The protests are very fragmented; I don’t think there is any kind of general coordination. All the expats here use a VPN to get on WhatsApp, YouTube etc, but most people are kind of oblivious to what’s going on. I suspect the majority of the population does not know that other countries have largely done away with Covid restrictions.”

*Names have been changed

The Guardian