Protests in China: A Q&A with Youqin Huang

Youqin Huang, arms folded, smiles and poses for a photo while standing outdoors.
Youqin Huang, a professor in UAlbany’s Department of Geography and Planning, discusses the mass protests occurring in China over strict pandemic restrictions.

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 6, 2022) — A deadly fire in China’s Xinjiang region last month triggered outcry against the nation’s stringent COVID policies, resulting in mass protests unseen in the country since 1989.

Citizens blamed the country’s strict zero-COVID policy for the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment building in Urumqi last month after video circulated showing fire engines struggling to reach the blaze while residents screamed inside. While it’s unclear why firefighters had trouble gaining access to the building, some residents linked the problems to China’s strict lockdown measures, which in some cases included barricading quarantined individuals inside their residences.

The tragedy caused a mass outpouring of people to the streets to express frustrations with life under such tight controls, especially while much of the rest of the world has eased restrictions. In a rare public rebuke of President Xi Jinping, residents have also aired their grievances with life under authoritarian Communist Party rule, which governs what they can read, watch, listen to and buy.

Youqin Huang is a professor in University at Albany’s Department of Geography and Planning. She studies the impact of market transition in China and her research focuses on housing, migration, health and wellbeing. She has recently studied health disparities with the COVID-19 pandemic in American cities, and shared her insights into what these mass protests mean for China and the rest of the world.

How do these conflicts compare to previous protests in China in terms of size, scope and significance?

In contrast to conventional wisdom, protests are quite common in China. Every year there are thousands if not tens of thousands of protests, often local and small in scale, targeting a specific issue, such as a land grab and unfair compensation by developers and local governments, delayed wage payments, massive layoffs, poor working conditions and environmental degradation.  

These latest protests are national and much larger in scale, happening in many cities simultaneously. While there are different grievances, these protests have one main goal: to end the strict “zero-COVID” policy such as mass testing and strict lockdown. Another significant aspect is that these protests happened among urban population from different backgrounds, including college students, working- and middle-class residents, and by different ethnic populations. People have been very frustrated by the prolonged strict COVID policies, and the deadly fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, on Nov. 24 was a trigger for that pent-up anger. In these regards, these protests are unprecedented in recent decades and are probably the largest since 1989.

Demonstrators have expressed frustration with the country’s strict zero-COVID policy, and some have gone so far as to criticize the current regime, calling for President Xi to step down. What is the significance of this?

Most protests in China after 1989 are related to material interests, and political protests are relatively rare. Even if protests were aimed at local governments, they were often related to tangible interests such as unfair compensations for land and housing. Current protests target the central government and especially President Xi, as the “zero-COVID” policy is Xi’s signature policy. It is probably the first time people publicly call Xi to step down. While that is virtually impossible, the call reflects frustration from prolonged strict COVID measures and anger over Xi’s third term, tightened censorship and increased surveillance during his era.   

The political demand is mainly among college students, while the desire to end excessive COVID restrictions is more popular among the masses. I think most people will be happy to go about their normal lives if China eases COVID restrictions. There was very strong support for strict COVID measures in China, especially in 2020 and 2021. Infection and death rates have been extremely low in China. Given the aging population in China and relatively inadequate healthcare facilities compared to the U.S., most Chinese believed they could not afford to adopt the “lying down” (tang ping) approach that the U.S. adopted. Without strong support from Chinese people, the zero-COVID policy wouldn’t have lasted this long.  

Before the pandemic, many people were quite satisfied with Xi thanks to his successful anti-corruption campaign, poverty alleviation program, and the grand goal of rejuvenating China to achieve “the Chinese Dream.” One of my recent studies, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows that Chinese generally report rather high level of happiness and that subjective wellbeing increased under Xi. It also shows that a narrowing gap in wellbeing as people at the bottom of the social hierarchy — those with less education, lower income and in rural areas — improved their wellbeing more than those at the top.  

Thus, this call for Xi to step down, while significant, should be considered in perspective.

How have authorities responded to the protests — both on the ground and in terms of surveillance and censorship?

While there are no official responses to protests from the central government, there are many changes at both the central and local level, signaling a significant shift in COVID policy.  

Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, who leads the fight against COVID-19, acknowledged on Nov. 30 that the pandemic is changing and that China’s COVID prevention has entered “a new chapter” as pathogenicity of the omicron virus diminishes, and vaccination becomes more widespread. She told health experts that progressive refinements to restrictive measures would continue. However, on Nov. 29, the state media stressed that refinement in approach should not be seen as opening up and the zero-COVID policy was here to stay.  

Meanwhile, the government announced an ambitious vaccination campaign focusing on the elderly, whose vaccination rate is low. The goal is to have 90% of those 80-plus years old receive at least one shot, and 90% of China’s eligible population receive a booster shot by the end of January of 2023.

At the local level, policies are changing quickly but there is huge regional variation. In some cities, strict COVID restrictions persist and green health code and testing are still needed to enter public places. In others, including Urumqi, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Chengdu, local governments are lifting various restrictions, phasing out lockdowns, shutting down testing booths or ending the PCR requirement for public transit or entrance to public places. Close contacts and some infected patients are allowed to quarantine at home instead of a quarantine facility, and in some cities quarantine facilities are being closed. Some colleges let students go home earlier for the winter break, and officials in Guangzhou assured the public that COVID-19 is now no more serious than a seasonal cold.

All these changes indicate a significant shift in COVID policy.

It should be mentioned that the central government issued the so-called “20 measures” on Nov. 11, about two weeks before the protests, to relax various COVID restrictions including shortening quarantine time and banning unnecessary lockdown. However, most local governments did not adopt those measures, and in fact often adopted more extreme measures to prevent possible outbreaks within their jurisdictions. Now, local governments rush to relax restrictions in the name of abiding the “20 measures” as a response to protests.

Meanwhile, there is no official media or government acknowledgement of the protests. Local authorities attempt to identify, arrest and punish protest leaders, while treating regular participants as non-threatening. Police visit potential protest sites, and search people’s cellphones for “illegal” apps such as Telegram, Twitter, and VPN, and delete pictures and videos of protests. There are many indications that the government uses cellphone and big data to track and monitor people.

The death of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin this week provided new space for citizens to air their grievances against the current regime. Why is that and what have people been saying?

Jiang came into power after the 1989 student movement. With a background in electrical engineering and no revolutionary experience or military ties, he was the first civilian leader. He delivered more than a decade of spectacular economic growth, reformed inefficient state-owned enterprises, introduced many changes in the Chinese Communist Party, oversaw the return of Hong Kong, and invested heavily in education. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and successfully hosted international events such as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and 2010 World Expo. Under Jiang’s rule, China became an economic powerhouse, moved toward unity, and ascended on the world stage with friendly international relations.  

Politically it was a relatively relaxed period and people had more freedom to express thoughts and debate issues. Jiang voluntarily stepped down after two-terms as the President, making the first smooth power transition in PRC’s history. Jiang’s death at this moment in history reminded some Chinese of “the good old days.” China is experiencing slower economic growth, increasingly hostile geopolitics, tightened censorship and surveillance, and Xi broke the two-term convention. This contrast provides spaces for some Chinese to express their unsatisfaction with the current government.

But of course, memory is often selective and can be deceiving and Jiang’s era was not without problems. His pro-growth approach led to a rise in social and regional inequality, and rampant corruption and bribery. Millions of state workers were laid off and environmental degradation and pollution worsened. According to the government statistics, the annual number of “mass incidents” (protests) rose from 5,000-10,000 in early 1990s to 60,000-100,0000 by the early 2000s, such that the government stopped publishing the number of “mass incidents” in 2006. But cellphones and social media were not ubiquitous as they are today, and “mass incidents” under Jiang did not have the kind of exposure and impact we see from recent protests.

What kind of impact have the demonstrations made so far?

The impact has been significant. It pushed the central government to re-calibrate existing policies and move faster towards opening by boosting the vaccination especially among the elderly. It forced many local governments to lift lockdown and relax restrictions. While there are inconsistencies in policies and some confusion on the ground, the overall direction is to ease excessive COVID restrictions.

In other words, the government has been responding to protesters’ call.

Another impact is that it really empowered many people, who are increasingly willing to act against local establishments. More and more residents start to challenge property management staff and resident committee employees for unnecessary COVID measures and use social media to expose problems and protect their rights.

It should also be mentioned that China is currently experiencing the worst outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic, with record high number of cases. Thus, it remains to be seen how these policy changes affect the pandemic outcomes.