The battle against the coronavirus has been Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top priority since early 2020. The Asian giant is the only one of the large economies on the planet that continues to cling to the zero covid policy, a strategy that has saved millions of lives and has allowed the most populous nation in the world to register a tiny number of infections compared to other countries. However, the economic ravages are weighing more and more among ordinary people, and patience after two and a half years of restrictions has run out among large sectors of the population, who have come out this weekend to demand political changes in the main cities. So many outbreaks of demonstrations in different corners of Chinese territory is something extremely unusual, which inevitably brings echoes of the student mobilizations of 1989, which led to the Tiananmen massacre.
Many hoped that after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China was held in October, the authorities would relax the strict sanitary measures. However, in his opening speech at that great five-year political event, Xi emphasized the need to continue the fight against covid-19 as before: “We have adhered to the supremacy of the people and of life. We have adhered to the zero covid strategy and have achieved significant positive results in overall epidemic prevention and control, as well as economic and social development.” The low vaccination rate of the elderly (some 267 million people over 60 have not received the booster dose) and the weaknesses of its health system are the two main reasons that China points out for betting on closures and tests. Massive PCR at every hint of regrowth.
To make matters worse, the appointment of Li Qiang as number two in the party, and probably the next prime minister, increased doubts about the opening. Li was the architect of the draconian lockdown in Shanghai, which for more than two months locked up 25 million people in the financial heart of China, sparking enormous discontent.
In addition to the general weariness, a chain of events that occurred in the last 70 days —and with great repercussions on networks— are key to understanding the outbreak of the protests this weekend. On September 18, 27 people died when a bus that was taking them to a quarantine center in Guizhou overturned. Celvin Wong (fictitious name), a thirty-something publicist from Shanghai, established a parallel between the wrecked vehicle and his country shortly after for this newspaper: “We all traveled on that bus. We all know that the driver is going to the wrong place, but we can’t control the steering wheel. You can’t go down. We all travel on a bus called China.”
On October 13, two days before the start of the Party Congress, the Police arrested a man in Beijing who had placed two banners on a bridge, in whose messages he charged against Xi and claimed “we don’t want PCR tests, we want to eat; We don’t want confinement, we want to be free”. This phrase is precisely one of the most repeated in the congregation that took place this Sunday on the Liangma River, in Beijing. The protester’s whereabouts have been unknown ever since.
In late October, hundreds of workers fled en masse from Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory over their discontent with the strict quarantine and living conditions during an outbreak that was detected inside the facility. In the worst onslaughts of the coronavirus, Chinese factories establish a “closed loop” system, under which employees cannot leave the plant to avoid contagion. This week, wage protests broke out in that same factory, which merged with those who criticized that the new workers hired were being mixed with some infected with covid. Days before, migrant workers from Guangzhou tore down the fences that kept them confined to their blocks and knocked down posts where PCR is carried out, in a riot that lasted just 20 minutes, but which revealed the precarious situation that thousands of people are facing to earn a living. .
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Added to this heated environment was the death of 10 people on the 24th in a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a tragedy that, according to a part of the population, could have been avoided if sanitary measures that kept the building semi-confined were not applied. A day later, a public official from the region questioned the “lack of knowledge or skills of residents to protect themselves”, comments that blew up the networks. The images of the demonstrations on the 25th at night in Urumqi seem to have been the spark that many needed to decide to take to the streets.
The population is also aware that in other countries they have chosen to live with the virus, despite the fact that infections continue. That in November President Xi met with other leaders abroad (and without a mask) at the G-20 summits and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum has generated debate, as is the World Cup in Qatar, where it has been shown that the rest of the world has practically returned to pre-pandemic normality.
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