World Journal

Is it the end of the “Zero Covid” policy era?

Is it the end of the “Zero Covid” policy era?

Widespread protests in China recently shocked both the world and the Chinese Communist party. This insurrection not only was unexpected, due to the pervasive societal control and censorship pursued by the government, but also for the first time it threatened directly Xi’s rule over the country. The decentralized uprising started with the “white sheets revolution”, as students used white A4 papers as a symbol to complain about the profound censorship and lack of freedom of speech in China. The protests started mainly in response to a fire that happened in the city of Urumqi, in which 10 people remained trapped and died while they couldn’t leave their apartments because of Covid restrictions.
Riots and strikes in China are usually suppressed by using the armed forces or via intimidation and threatening. Since the risk for citizens of getting recognized and reported by the police is high, the effectiveness of these means is usually high. The country is clearly entering a difficult period, given the slowing down of the economy, the surge in covid cases, the scarce efficacy of Chinese vaccines and the still-too-strict quarantining rules. Will these tumults translate into something dangerous for the Party’s regime? How were they possible in the first place?

An unexpected reaction

Interestingly enough, the movement breaks through right after Xi’s coronation as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Even if they surprised everyone, these stunning protests were clearly anticipated by a diffused discontent over the “zero Covid” policies, that have become now a more political and less scientific measure to control the spread of the virus within the country. Moreover, the economic stagnation in which China is falling into is causing social unrest, given the fact that economic growth has been, especially in recent years, the main element that strengthened social bonds and ended the poverty of a greater part of Chinese people; not by chance those who are protesting are mainly youths. They are those who experienced the recent health and economic crisis in the harshest way, as attested by the youth unemployment rate that in 2022 reached 17.9%. The implicit social pact guaranteeing stability and prosperity in exchange for privacy and more governmental control is now broken, with growing discontent against the ruling class. The strict Covid policies adopted by Xi’s administration are not only endangering short- and long-term economic growth, but they are also causing a get-away of western firms from the country (the great strength of the past Chinese economy). Chinese citizens learned that the normality they were experiencing (massive lockdowns due to few cases) is an outdated strategy all over the world, only optimal to a political class that is not able to restore a pre-pandemic situation.

Cybersecurity to track protesters

Police are massively using phone monitoring and face recognition to track protesters, which are no longer safe even days after they have taken part in a riot. This is possible due to one of the most sophisticated and widespread surveillance systems in the world, that has equipped – in recent years – buildings and streets with several cameras. Moreover, a software for face recognition has been used to identify the protesters. This surveillance system is the same used to track also migrants and ethnic minorities, something that happens for example in the province of Xinjiang, where the Muslim population of the Uyghurs is still today persecuted. Chinese people that were protesting largely underestimated the issue of facial recognition and phone tracking, being the policy put in place many years ago without major worries.

Counteractions by protesters

Protesters started using some countermeasures similar to those adopted during the Honk Kong protests of 2019, aimed at trying to reveal the identity of several police agents. This was done by taking advantage of a data leak from the Communist Party that occurred in 2020. In addition to this, protesters started to take precautions such as using sunglasses, masks and other face coverings, while deactivating face recognition and GPS tracking on their phones. Even with the help of those expedients, in many cases police were still able to track protesters, which received phone calls in the days following the riots, warning them not to continue with their subversive actions.
Protesters also engaged in the use of VPN and “Western” applications to coordinate their actions, downloading Telegram and Signal to organize illegal protests and strikes.
Many people started creating posts on social media, helping those who want to join the protest with guidelines and advices, as happened recently during the BLM movement.
Sarcasm, music and football are now ways of expressing grievances, in order to claim freedom of expression in a sophisticated and subtle way.
Social media such as Weibo were used by the Party in order to channel rage and discontent in an easy-to-control way, adopting small tolerance over subversive posts. During the recent uproar, however, the magnitude of “illegal” content was too much to handle even for Chinese censorship. The government has recently engaged in spam and bot operations even in Western social networks such as Twitter, in a topical attempt to crowd out news about what is happening in China.
The situation in the country right now is surely unprecedented, but it is not the case that the population is ready to replicate what happened in Tiananmen during the 80s. However, events demonstrate that even under a suffocating control and governmental censorship, Chinese citizens are still reacting to political impositions and outdated rules.

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