It is impossible to say much definite about the protests in China. Information is at the mercy of one’s friend circles and social media feeds; interpretation is based either on wishful thinking or abstract projections. Two weeks ago, after the Twentieth Party Congress, everyone was commenting on the concentration of political power in Xi Jinping’s hands, crediting him with total control over the manufacture of consent, among other things. The spectacle of former president Hu Jintao being dragged from the proceedings confirmed for many that Xi was dangerously strong. Today, here is what we know: There are several simultaneous but as yet uncoordinated social explosions of frustration, anger, anguish, and pent-up pain. These are spontaneous but not random; they are nationwide and not contained to one city or one group of people. Some of the protesters appear political—“Xi Jinping, step down,” “Communist Party, step down” in downtown Shanghai; “freedom of speech” at universities—while all of the demonstrations articulate an emotional and social exhaustion with the “dynamic zero-Covid” regime rolling through people’s lives.
The zero-Covid policy mandates that even the smallest outbreak of the virus must immediately be contained before it escapes into the general population. Dynamic zero-Covid is intended to allow for those uninfected—as verified by an intrusive testing regime keyed to color-coded health apps—to go about their business as usual. Yet, as these policies enter their third year, people are fed up with the constant testing, phone app surveillance, being notified of proximity to a suspected positive case, and intermittent lockdowns.
We should recall that this round of collective anger began with worker unrest at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, Henan province, where labor conditions are abysmal in normal times and, with the recently implemented “closed loop” system, have become intolerable. (“Closed loop” refers to factory-dormitory trajectories that reduce extraneous activity that could introduce infection, which mean workers often can’t leave the shop floor without permission, exit the factory grounds at all, or socialize with those not in their immediate work or life circle.) Cornell Professor Eli Friedman pointed out in his interviews with Jacobin and on Democracy Now! that the fact that videos showed workers escaping the factory by scaling fences and perimeter walls indicates that there has been a prison-like situation at the giant facility where iPhones are produced. Foxconn, a huge Taiwanese corporation, and the Chinese government are both desperate to keep production going (the period right before Christmas is high season for iPhones); company reps have been scouring the country and offering ever-increasing bribes to workers to keep the assembly lines moving and global supplies stocked. Yet, given the conditions at the factory, even those offers have gone begging in a country whose economy is now sagging under the weight of Covid restrictions.
I leave it to others to trace a clearer timeline of events: Where did which protests break out in sequential order? (Recent commentary on the ChinaFile site offers some ideas about this.) I want to make a different point. For, as with all efforts at chronology, where one begins matters. I choose to begin with the workers at Foxconn, to emphasize what our mainstream commentariat now will most likely ignore: that the anger cannot be seen as a purely urban or educated-class phenomenon but is rooted in the brutal regimes of wealth accumulation, labor extraction, and global-domestic political power that have metastasized in the past several decades.
As Cambridge Professor Bill Hurst roughly analyzed in his Twitter feed, there has been a layering of unrest since 1989: in villages where rapacious land grabs dispossess peasants; in factories, mines, and on digital platforms where labor regimes are cruelly extractive; among poorer urban denizens and migrants defrauded by construction, real estate, and banking concerns backed by or rooted in municipal governments; among feminists and those refusing to conform to patriarchal modes of social organization. These bouts of collective but localized unrest are endemic, but have mostly bypassed urban petty bourgeois and capitalist classes, who have benefited from the systems of oppression upon which their comfortable lives have been fashioned. Over the almost three years of the pandemic, the increasing disruption of those lives has now registered as intolerable.
It is not that urban wealthy classes have been quiescent in the decades since the last urban upheaval in 1989. Rather, it is that the mode of voicing discontent among urban wealthy classes is different from the labor and peasant unrest of recent decades. As first-tier cities and their legal residents have seen their own fortunes skyrocket in absolute terms and in comparison to the rest of the country, competitive access to desired services and goods has provoked much grumbling and many makeshift individualized protests, yielding, to be sure, exceptionally creative adaptations of language and expression that proliferate on the Internet so as to evade censors. Yet, what we see today is an extension of and different from these forms. The shared iconography of the white A4 paper, blank or with some sort of commemorative writing, has spread through the protests, giving them a sense of unity that they almost certainly lack in reality. There are efforts now to name the protests “the White Paper Movement” (白纸运动) or “the A4 Revolution” (A4 革命). It is unclear if those efforts at defining and naming are coming from within China or from the diaspora abroad.
What we are seeing now is brave urban folks, from all walks of life, coming out of their homes to contest the conditions of their surveilled, over-tested, and locked-down lives. They perhaps have not linked their difficulties to the lives of their poorer more exploited compatriots in Zhengzhou and in the villages; in fact, it is a fair bet that many have not. Yet it is still remarkable that the immediate catalyst for this round of public venting seems to have been the 10 (or probably more) Uyghur deaths in an inferno in Urumqi—deaths blamed on Covid protocols that prevented firefighters from accessing the burning building; Uyghurs and Xinjiang have been carefully hidden away in public discourse in China because of the AI/prison-industrial complex that this region has now become. The Urumqi tragedy is now added to an earlier bus crash near Guiyang that killed 27 Covid evacuees and injured 20 others, and the Lanzhou toddler who perished from gas inhalation in his sealed-off home, among many other private and public tragedies and travails of this pandemic era. The toll is taking its toll. And the locked-down modes of protest are now making themselves known.
But why now?
We cannot know for sure. But in part, perhaps, it is because urban denizens are visible to international media. They are capable of evading censors and posting on global social media sites, making themselves visible to a global audience and a diasporic population of angry young folks who can amplify and articulate their own political despair in resonance with their friends and families at home. Again, we should recall that after the Twentieth Party Congress, poster campaigns across US universities (and elsewhere) broke out, condemning Xi’s third term and his purging of non-supporters; these campaigns were highly contested by the “little pinks” who act as spokespeople on campuses abroad for the Chinese Communist Party, setting up campus-level confrontations over competing styles of governance and political systems. The diasporic elements and the wealthy urban educated classes in China speak the language of Euro-American “democracy” fluently. They can make themselves seen and heard in the global arena.
Will the state proceed to repress and then buy off these urban denizens, to bribe them back into their “normal” pre-Covid lives, so as to calm the unrest while proceeding with the concentrations of power, wealth, and surveillance capacity apace? That is what happened after the 1989 suppression of the urban social movements. For the moment, universities are emptying their campuses. After months of imprisoning students within school walls to contain infections, leaders are now giving students the “choice” to return home early and finish the semester online. With the specter of 1989 looming, breaking up densities of students is a clear objective. Meanwhile, surveillance sweeps are snatching up people and dispatching them to jails and detention centers. Will fear quell the public protests and push them back into the private sphere? Or will these actions snowball into something for which we still have no name? We will see.