Award Banner
Award Banner

1 year on, China's Covid protesters caught between hope and apathy

1 year on, China's Covid protesters caught between hope and apathy
People gather for a vigil and hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) restrictions, as they commemorate the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of the coronavirus disease continue in Beijing, China, Nov 27, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters file

BEIJING/HONG KONG — One year after "white paper" protests flared across China against stringent Covid restrictions, Yicheng Huang fears this rare show of public dissent may eventually be forgotten by the Chinese public amid state censorship.

The wave of civil disobedience which erupted on Nov 25 last year was unprecedented in President Xi Jinping's decade in power, which has seen a widespread crackdown on civil society.

While the protests against the zero-Covid policy were quickly suppressed by police, they helped hasten the end of three years of some of the world's strictest pandemic curbs.

"Many protesters experienced being part of a civic collective for the first time," said Huang, who fled to Germany in March after narrowly avoiding detention during protests in Shanghai. "For Chinese people, this is like first love."

Six participants based in China and overseas told Reuters they felt a mixture of hope and ambivalence towards the demonstrations, which they said helped to end Covid restrictions but failed to achieve lasting political change.

Many spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of state retribution, after last year's widespread police crackdown. Reuters was unable to confirm the total number of protesters detained last year, although some were since released.

This year, on the weekend anniversary of the protests, there were no demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai. There was also a heavy police presence at protest sites. Cities with large Chinese communities overseas, including New York, London and Washington DC, staged commemorative events.

Huang said many of his Shanghai friends walked past the main protest site to mark the anniversary, but did little else. "It's turned into a forbidden memory, like June 4th," he said, referring to the widely censored 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square.

During last year's Beijing protests, some demonstrators also called for press freedom, democracy and human rights.

Some of the protesters that Reuters spoke to, as well as observers, said the events helped raise awareness of how much political power Chinese people actually wielded.

An Italy-based Chinese artist and blogger known as "Teacher Li", whose Twitter account became a viral conduit for protest information, told Reuters the protests "brought Chinese people's civic awareness to a new stage, and more people realised they need to stand up to protect their rights."

The protests also preceded small-scale acts of subversion this year, including politically charged costumes during Halloween celebrations in Shanghai and widespread mourning over the death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who was sidelined by Xi.

"I never thought that the protests would resonate so widely with people in China, where there's a high degree of monitoring," said a 30-year-old Guangzhou-based demonstrator.

"I finally realised I'm not alone," she said. "This made me feel less pessimistic about China's future political situation, although I'm still pretty pessimistic!"

Other China-based participants were more ambivalent, saying they would not publicly commemorate the protests or discuss them among friends due to security concerns and a general unwillingness to revisit memories of the pandemic.

One of them, a 28-year-old Beijing tech firm employee, said she and a friend were warned by police not to take part in any activities over the weekend, even though they had not been contracted by the authorities before.

These warnings, and the reality of life in China, may dampen hopes for wider social change, she added.

"Even if some young first-time protesters did have a political awakening, this was probably soon overtaken by mundane concerns like the bad economy, property market and high unemployment," she said.

ALSO READ: Halloween revellers throng Shanghai, some wearing costumes seen as a protest to China policies

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.