Chinese Protestors Can Make a Difference. We Must Help Them.
One Chinese American woman living in Texas described the situation of her parents in China who were suffering under the government’s continuing “zero COVID” policy. She told one of us, “My parents have been locked inside their home for over a month, and their door is locked from the outside. They can’t exit, even to go outside to the grocery store.” It is under intense restrictions like these that 10 people died in an apartment fire in China’s Xinjiang province after COVID restrictions hampered the ability of local emergency services to respond effectively.
The horrific incident sparked a surprising wave of protests in cities across China at the end of November. The main target of the protests was the government’s lockdown measures, but the pent-up frustrations for Chinese citizens went much farther. Some student protestors shouted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” It is not an exaggeration to say that these protestors are risking their lives to make these statements.
Protests rarely happen under the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tight-fisted authoritarian regime. It is even more rare that they prove to be effective. Yet, a new 10-point order issued by the Chinese National Health Commission on Wednesday indicates that the CCP is rolling back some of its most extreme COVID restrictions. The new rules state that citizens who contract the virus and exhibit mild or no symptoms are no longer required to be admitted into a state-run facility and can now quarantine at home.
Demonstrations on the scale of the anti-lockdown protests perhaps have not been seen since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Chinese citizens learned just how far the communist government would go to secure its own power and crush peaceful protests. Chinese authorities were quick to insist that the anti-lockdown protests last month were instigated by “foreign forces.” Student protestors in Beijing asked at a rally, “Was it foreign forces that started the fire in Xinjiang?” and “We can’t even access foreign internet, how are foreign forces meant to be communicating to us?”
China’s internet is restricted and widely censored. However, resourceful protestors have at times found ways around this. One method in the past utilized Apple’s AirDrop feature to share information and images among fellow protestors. AirDrop uses wireless Bluetooth connections between phones, making it difficult for Chinese censors to monitor and interrupt discussions. This was used as recently as October when an anonymous protestors hung a sign over a highway bridge. However, on November 9, a new Apple update limited the use of the AirDrop feature specifically in China.
Protestors started to simply hold up blank sheets of white paper at rallies, symbolizing the internet censorship that swiftly erases the voices of dissenters. A4 size white paper was promptly banned from being sold online or in stores. China’s communist leaders have long been fearful of protests. Now, they even fear blank sheets of paper.
Sadly, China is becoming an increasingly closed society. In February 2022, China’s National Immigration Administration announced that it would no longer renew passports for non-essential travel due to “great security risks” posed by the waning COVID-19 pandemic. Massive COVID quarantine camps have sprouted up across the country, capable of holding tens of thousands of people.
Yet the Biden administration’s reaction to the protests has been muted. President Biden had just met with Xi earlier in the month for what some analysts perceived as an attempt to cool tensions. A National Security Council spokesperson said, “As we’ve said, we think it’s going to be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their ‘zero COVID’ strategy.” Regarding the protests specifically, he said the Biden administration has “long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave similarly muted comments in an MSNBC interview. This mild critique doesn’t come close to matching the energy of the protestors — nor does it reflect the brutal totalitarian nature of the regime they are protesting.
The extreme and oppressive nature of China’s COVID lockdowns are just the symptom. The real problem is the longstanding systematic oppression of the CCP, and Chinese people are clearly getting fed up with it. American leaders should not let the courageous protests of young Chinese citizens be snuffed out and forgotten. We must amplify their message and remind them they are not alone in their desire to see China become a more free and just society.
Now is not the time to remain silent. We must pick up the torch from the Chinese protestors who have now been pressured into silence.
Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of "Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution."
Rev. Bob Fu, Ph.D. is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council.