Mass protests may ease COVID restrictions in China but won’t lead to any democratic freedoms, Northeastern experts say 

masked protestors outside
Hundreds of people stage a demonstration against Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” policy at Liangmaqiao district in Beijing, China. The Chinese government has faced unprecedented dissent protests in several cities, including Urumqi, Shanghai, and Beijing. The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

China began easing COVID-19 restrictions and opening up cities from strict lockdowns on Wednesday in the face of mass protests that erupted across the country last weekend. 

While the protests are unlikely to lead to more democratic freedoms and social change, Northeastern experts say, China might have to grapple with a rapid rise in COVID cases due to insufficient natural and vaccination immunity as a result of the “zero-COVID” policy.

From talking to family and friends and reading social media posts, Hua Dong, senior academic specialist in Chinese language at Northeastern, saw the frustration with the “zero-COVID” policy building up among Chinese citizens. She says the frustration found an outlet through the protests that broke out across China last weekend. 

“Zero-COVID policy has been so strict and long and did so much damage to the well-being of everyone’s sanity,” she says.

The “zero-COVID” policy was first introduced in China in the city of Wuhan in 2019 during the initial outbreak of the virus. For almost three years, China would shut down neighborhoods and whole cities at a moment’s notice, locking the residents inside for months. 

People had to line up for hours to take the COVID test required to enter a supermarket or subway, Dong says. Her aged in-laws in Shanghai were not able to stockpile food and basic necessities in time for the lockdown and had to look for someone to deliver supplies through WeChat, a Chinese social media app. A food shortage scare was on everyone’s minds, she says. 

As COVID cases jumped up in China again in the fall, the government started another round of unpredictable shutdowns.

“In China COVID is perceived as a death sentence, like the most serious disease,” she says. 

By contrast, Dong’s high school friends were shocked to see the World Cup fans cheering on soccer teams in Qatar without masks and soccer stars competing vigorously after recovering from COVID, she says. 

When a fire occurred in a high-rise building in Urumqi in Xinjiang region on Nov. 24, killing 10 people, many Chinese felt that COVID lockdown measures prevented firefighters from getting to the victims in time. People felt they needed to speak up, Dong says, or they could be the victims of the “zero-COVID” policy next.

Dong believes that the change in COVID policies was the primary demand of the protesters. She did see posts on social media with slogans “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” and “Down with Xi Jinping!” (the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the president of the People’s Republic of China since 2013) as well as that students were protesting on college campuses.

“For them COVID is one of the issues. They are all demanding free speech, free press as they are the vanguard of social changes,” Dong says.

Some protest slogans reminded her of the ones she heard at Tiananmen Square in 1989 when she was a graduate student in Beijing. Back then the protests led to a massacre of thousands of participants and a military crackdown. 

Dennis Kwok, former member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and scholar in exile at Northeastern, says he is pessimistic that the calls for freedom and democracy might bring any changes in China. 

“Holding up a piece of paper and demonstrating takes a lot of courage in China, but, at the end of the day, the authorities will not be afraid of that. And you will not be able to get them to back down because they will not back down in the face of a protest. They cannot,” Kwok says. 

Some of the protesters held blank sheets of white paper during the protests, which the media interpreted as a metaphor for the absence of freedom of speech and censorship. Kwok says this symbolic mute form of protests was first used in Hong Kong in 2019.

“I never thought or imagined that now across China tens of thousands of people are holding a piece of white paper in protests over a very different cause. But I think fundamentally, it is about the same thing. And it is about freedom,” he says.

In the first decade of 2000s, some thought that the Chinese leadership was competent, pragmatic and focused on economic development, Kwok says. But things changed when Xi came to power. He has a very different view of China and of the world, Kwok says.

“We are seeing the kind of authoritarianism that Chinese people have not seen in decades,” he says. “And I think we are in for a very difficult time for a long period.” 

Pablo Calderon Martinez, assistant professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern University – London, does not believe that the protests in China have the potential to grow much wider or cause much more instability in the country.

In his opinion, the protests are not as much anti-regime as a reaction to the specific issue—the unbearable COVID policies—and a fatigue among the citizens of big urban centers, especially the middle class, who were not used to very authoritarian and repressive measures. The government did not give them any trade-offs for sacrificing their freedoms like freely going to restaurants or traveling; instead, they didn’t feel safer and saw the economic growth slow down, Calderon Martinez says. 

But if the government provides them with stability, economic growth, and some freedom to enjoy their middle class wealth, things will go back to normal relatively soon, Calderon Martinez says. 

“China is still far away from developing the sort of vocal middle class that can lead to real problems for the regime,” Calderon Martinez says. 

Loosening of the “zero-COVID” policy is a huge blow to credibility of the CCP, Dong says, as the Chinese government has been taunting how superior their policy has been over the rest of the world.

China reported 30,205 deaths to WHO since Jan. 3, 2020, while the United States recorded more than 1 million deaths.

At the beginning of the pandemic the “zero–COVID” policy reduced virus transmission and saved Chinese health-care system from being completely overwhelmed given the country’s 1.4 billion population, says Neil Maniar, professor of practice and director of the Master of Public Health in Urban Health program in the Bouve College of Health Sciences at Northeastern. 

But the policy failed on a couple of other really important fronts. 

Currently, China doesn’t have a high enough degree of natural and vaccine induced immunity in the population, Maniar says, as its vaccination campaign was initially limited to adults ages 19-60, leaving out the most vulnerable to COVID elderly population. Only 40% of Chinese older than 80 have received a booster shot by now, according to the Washington Post.

Chinese vaccines also demonstrated short durability, or the amount of time that they are going to remain protective, in comparison with the mRNA vaccinations used in the West, Maniar says.

With highly transmissible variants of COVID like Omicron predominant right now, lifting lockdowns can cause COVID cases in China to rapidly rise, he says.

Lockdowns also have a high public health toll, he says, as they have a profoundly negative impact on mental health, intellectual health and economic well-being with significant long-term consequences. Isolation, stress, anxiety, and not being able to participate in in-person schooling has affected an entire generation of young people in China.

“It is critical that the approach shifts to one that is not only more effective, but an approach that actually is going to promote health on a number of different fronts and that will reduce the negative health impacts,” Maniar says.

An updated policy needs to be tailored to specific geographic areas at a specific point in time.

“That’s what we really need to transition to everywhere as we move forward because COVID is with us now. There is no escaping it,” Maniar says.

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