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Post-COVID China: More Protests to Come

The whole world has suffered greatly due to the COVID pandemic. The Chinese people may have  been the hardest-hit victims, being the first to experience it and the last to recover from it. They have suffered not only from the virus itself but also from the Chinese authorities’ decisions in handling the pandemic, from the initial leak of the virus to the mishandling of the first outbreak, and from the inhumane three-year lockdowns to the irresponsible sudden lifting of the COVID restrictions in December of 2022.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hopes that, after the huge wave of infections and a massive death toll in the past several months, China will return back to its normal heydays before COVID.

That is hardly the case. Too many things have changed over the past three years and the communist regime now faces mounting challenges, including a failing economy, a loss of credibility, an unstable political structure, and challenges to the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule.

Chinascope will publish a series of analyses on this new era in China, commenting on the people, the society, and the authorities. This first article will cover the topic of public protests in China.

A. COVID-Era Protests

The outlook on protests in China has changed significantly since the COVID pandemic.

Before the large-scale Chinese protests (against the CCP’s zero-COVID policy) in late 2022, the student movement in 1989 was the last time that China saw major, nationwide demonstrations. The 2019-2020 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong’s, while not insignificant, were only at the regional-level. Although protests have occurred from time to time in the intervening years since 1989, they were generally small-scale, and the CCP has been able to suppress them successfully, one-by-one.

The first sign of unusual behavior, beginning in late October of 2022, was the Foxconn workers’ unrest in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. Due to a spike in positive COVID cases at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory, Foxconn had followed the government’s zero-COVID policy by locking down about 200,000 workers in its facility, not allowing them to leave. The COVID outbreak inside the factory spread rapidly and, on October 29, 2022, tens of thousands of workers dismantled the lockdown fences and fled, starting their journeys home. Surprisingly, the local police didn’t stop these fleeing workers and just let them go.

Foxconn quickly hired and onboarded 100,000 replacement workers. These newcomers, after finding out that Foxconn had tried to cheat them on payment terms, protested and clashed with police on November 22. The factory ended up giving these workers the option to quit their jobs with severance pay of 10,000 Yuan (about US $1,400). Many workers thus left Foxconn again.

Both cases of unrest at the Foxconn factory bore fruit for the protesters. {1}

The second case of “successful” protests were the public demonstrations against China’s “zero-COVID” policy in late November and early December of 2022. On November 24, 2022, a fire broke out in a high-rise apartment building in Urumqi, Xinjiang. The government’s extreme lockdown policy had prevented people from escaping the deadly fire, as many apartments had been sealed shut from the outside, and the arrival of firefighters was delayed for hours due to lockdown-related roadblocks and abandoned vehicles. The tragedy led to country-wide demonstrations as the Chinese could no longer stand the intense lockdown and endless mandatory COVID testing. Residents in many cities took to the streets and students at hundreds of universities gathered for on-campus protests. Many demonstrators held up blank sheets of paper as a symbol of their discontentment over the lockdowns, their reaction to government censorship, and thus the movement was dubbed the “A4 Revolution” (referring to the A4-sized paper that is common in China). Less than a month after the protests began, the CCP’s central authorities announced an end to the country’s three-years-long lockdown policy, lifting COVID restrictions completely.

There were reports that Beijing’s 180-degree policy reversal was not merely a reaction to the widespread protests. It was also an accommodation to local governments which were low on cash and could no longer afford to enforce the CCP’s rigid lockdown policy. {2} Nevertheless, from the public’s point of view, the protests were successful.

After the COVID lockdown protests, the “Firecracker Revolution” followed. Lighting firecrackers on Chinese New Year is a longstanding tradition, but for decades the Chinese government has prohibited the practice within cities due to the risk of fires. Around the 2023 Chinese New Year (Jan 23, 2023), people in several provinces such as Henan and Shandong lit firecrackers in public squares. Merrymakers ignored the police attempts to stop the fun, and eventually the police gave up and let the people have their way. In the following days, some cities announced that they would now allow firecrackers. {3}

Then there came the “White-Hair Movement (白发运动).” Elderly demonstrations took to the streets in Guangzhou City on January 11th, {4} in Wuhan City on February 8th and 15th, {5} and in Dalian City on February 15th, {6} to protest the government stealing money that they had painstakingly accumulated over years of hard work.

The Chinese government’s national medical insurance program, in which many companies enroll all of their employees, maintains two pools of funds: individual accounts (with contributions by the individual, and sometimes with matching contributions from their employer) and a public pool of funds (with contributions coming directly from participating companies). The public pool had a severe shortage, as it was underfunded and its money had been misused. Starting in early 2023, a number of local governments initiated “reforms” to this insurance program, transferring money from individual accounts to the public pool, claiming that this “redistribution” would lead to better spending control and would benefit the public. This is what pushed the retirees and the elderly to the streets. {7}

Normally, the elderly are more tolerant and less confrontational than younger folks. The fact that they were pushed to the streets shows that social unrest in China had reached a boiling point.

The latest strike was at Meituan, China’s Doordash on April 19 when several hundred delivery staff at Shanwei City, Guangdong Province started a strike to protest the company’s cutting their pay. The company played tough and shipped in delivery staff from other cities. Finally on April 26, the company gave in and reverted back to the previous payment terms. Again, it was another win by the protesters. {8}

B. Anti-Protest Measures and Protesters’ Countermeasures

The CCP had a reputation for shutting down public protests with an iron fist, yet people are still coming out to demonstrate.

The authorities have been tightly monitoring WeChat, Weibo, and other social media, and they have been deleting postings or, in many cases, dissolving discussion groups to prevent the spread of information about ongoing protests. Learning from the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protesters, Chinese people have started using the “Telegraph” mobile app, which features end-to-end message encryption, when discussing topics that the authorities would deem unacceptable. The CCP is able to infiltrate some Telegraph discussion groups with spies, but it may not be able to penetrate every potential dissident group.

To shut down a protest, the CCP usually arrests the leaders or key figures and then drives the rest of the demonstrators away. Since the armed and unarmed police have superior weapons and equipment, they generally have the upper hand in physical clashes with protesters. Nevertheless, recent protests have shown that protesters are not afraid of clashing with the police. In one firecracker protest, civilians opened the door of a police car to help an arrested protester to escape. At another scene, people turned a police car upside down. {9} A recorded video of the Chongqing COVID testing kit factory protest showed demonstrators chasing the police and throwing things at them.

In the past, the CCP would stick to its hardline positions and never give in to public demand. A totalitarian regime must worry that, if it yields to public demand on small matters, the public may be encouraged and come back later with larger demands (for example, for true democratic elections).

However, it seems that nowadays that local governments are more willing than the central government to compromise with protesters, as local officials want immediate peace in their region whereas the CCP Central Committee bares ultimate responsibility for maintaining the CCP’s grip on power in the long run. Moreover, suppressing unrest is costly, as is implementing hardline policies such as “zero-COVID,” Thus, local officials have a financial incentive to minimize turmoil and compromise with protesters rather than enforce such policies.

Of course, there are still effective anti-protest measures that the authorities can take. In many cases, law enforcement has been able to block people from accessing protest sites via physical or technological means. For example, the Shanghai police blocked Shanghai’s Urumqi Road during the protests that followed the Urumqi fire, even going so far as to remove the “Urumqi Road” street sign. In another case, when a few Henan village banks went belly-up, the Henan police used the Chinese COVID health app to block angry customers from assembling to demand the return of their money. The police set the customers’ health codes to red – a “red” status on the Chinese COVID health app means that the holder is infected with COVID and is therefore prohibited from travelling.

The CCP has recently seen a dramatic decline in its ability to quash protests. Furthermore, recent protests have revealed the CCP’s Achilles Heel: It has only limited loyalist forces to fight against the entire Chinese population which it suppresses. If simultaneous protests spread all over the country, the CCP would likely be unable to quell them all effectively, as it would not have enough police and/or soldiers to concurrently suppress protests in all protesting cities. Even if it managed to gather enough personnel to handle ongoing demonstrations, further unrest could always break out in yet more locations. Besides, the CCP also needs to worry about whether its forces are so loyal that they will absolutely, unconditionally carry out orders to conduct hardline suppression.

C. Forecast: More Protests to Come

We believe that more protests are likely to occur in post-COVID China. Below are three factors that inform this forecast.

First, the Chinese people have many things to complain about. Many peoples’ lives have been upended during the past several years of COVID lockdowns, and China’s current economic outlook is uncertain. Even if the populace has been trained or even coerced into not to asking for human rights and democracy, there is much to be upset about.

China’s current economic woes include, for example:

  • China’s real estate industry is in the midst of a historic downturn. Although government officials have been working to prop up falling housing prices, home prices may still fall further, in which case many citizens would find that their nest eggs have evaporated or been greatly reduced.
  • China’s social security and retirement funds are not only underfunded, but also the authorities misuse those funds.  Sooner or later, more and more people will realize that their retirement may not be a sure bet.
  • The CCP is sitting on an unemployment volcano – millions of college graduates have been unable find jobs, and there is a 20 percent unemployment rate for people who are between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. {10}
  • Many local governments, being strapped for cash, have cut pay and benefits to government employees. More cuts may be necessary going forward, which would lead to further discontent among government employees.

If China’s economic issues are further exacerbated, there could be a wave of layoffs, potentially triggering protests.

Some other potential events that could fan the flames of unrest might include:

  • If the real death count from the COVID pandemic were revealed (as opposed to the “official” numbers reported by the CCP and its media),
  • If new injustices were made public within China, such as the 2022 chained lady incident {11} or the CCP’s ongoing forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience {12}, or
  • If the CCP’s brand of patriotism and vilification of “the influence of hostile countries” were to backfire, e.g. if China were to suffer a major sporting loss or military defeat.

Second, a new generation of young people, who harbor discontent with current circumstances and were born after the Tiananmen massacre, they, might be more willing to protest than was the older generation. Quite a number of these young people in China are fed up with the authorities and do not see much hope for the future.

Young people between the age of 18 and 30 are likely to be the vanguard of future protests in China. Born after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, this cohort has not witnessed the full extent of the CCP’s brutality and is thus not as fearful as the older generations. This cohort enjoyed an economic boom during childhood and has dreams of upward mobility. Facing the current harsh economic reality, these young people are suffering a big disappointment, especially given that many are unemployed. A recent survey by Oliver Wyman showed that 62 percent of China’s Generation Z (a group of 280 million people born between 1995 and 2010) are worried about job security, and 56 percent are worried about their future prospects for a better lifestyle. {13}

China’s elderly may also have reason to be discontent. During their careers, the government reduced their salary to divert cash towards “retirement funds,” promising them pensions after retirement. The CCP may cheat them on their pensions in the event of an anticipated shortfall in these retirement funds, similar to what happened to the medical insurance program.

So far, many unhappy Chinese people have chosen to Tang Ping (a choice to “lieflat,” meaning to take a passive approach by not doing much). {14} This could change if the government or the economic outlook were to push them into a corner, in which case they might be motivated to take to the streets.

Finally, local officials are strapped for cash and are thus motivated to adopt a tolerant attitude toward protests rather than suppress them on behalf of the central CCP.

The CCP has suppressed spiritual practices and has promoted making money as the primary goal to which people should aspire. Monetary gain has become the main driver motivating people to take public sector positions. At the same time, the central CCP’s policy has led China’s various levels of government, especially the local ones, into deep debt. This means local officials and police are now struggling to maintain current levels of pay. As such, they no longer have a strong motivation to defend the CCP. In the event of protests. These officials might be tempted to Tang Ping or to settle with protesters rather than to uphold the party line by funding an expensive confrontation or crackdown.

Thus, in the post-COVID era, we expect that it is only a matter of time before more protests occur and the CCP’s throne begins to shake.

1. Zaobao, “Foxconn’s ‘Big Escape from COVID’ to ‘Big Protest,’” November 24, 2022.
2. CNN, “One Chinese province spent $22 billion on eliminating Covid before policy U-turn,” January 16, 2023.
3. Chinascope, “A “Firecracker Revolution” Took Place in China,” January 6, 2023.
4. Epoch Times, “Guangzhou Residents Continued Protest Against the Government’s Cutting Their Pension Designated to Buy Medical Insurance,” January 24, 2024.
5. Radio France International, “Wuhan White-Hair Movement, Many People Were Arrested,” February 22, 2023.中国/20230222-白发抗议运动-武汉传逮捕多人.
6. Epoch Times, “People in Dalian Protests Medical Insurance Change,” February 15, 2023.
7. Epoch Times, “Yuan Bin: Medical Insurance Reform Gave Chinese People a Vivid Lesson,” February 23, 2023.
8. China Digital Times, “Meituan Reverted to Previous Payment Terms After a Week-long Strike,” April 30, 2023.
9. China News, “Chinese People Ignored the Firecracker Ban and Police Chose to Tang Ping,” January 23, 2023.
10. Net Ease, “National Bureau of Statistics: Employment Rate for Young Man between 18 and 24 is 19.9 Percent,” August 16, 2022.
11. National Public Radio, “The mystery of the chained woman in China,” Feb 17, 2022.
12. McMaster University, “Analysis: Killing prisoners for transplants: Forced organ harvesting in China,” July 29, 2022.
13. Reuters, “China’s pessimistic Gen Z poses challenge for Xi post-COVID,” January 17, 2023.
14. Chinascope, “’Tang Ping,’ A New Form of Social Disobedience in China,” July 13, 2021.