After the Chinese government announced this week that it would back down from its tough Covid policy, many Chinese expressed their gratitude to protesters who had spoken out boldly against the punitive restrictions. After three long years, people all over China have been able to try to return to normal life.
“Thank you brave young people” was a widely shared comment on Chinese social media platforms. Some people published Time magazine’s new “Hero of the Year” cover, honoring Iranian women, and compared the Chinese protesters to them: “Hail the brave women of Iran.” Salute the brave young people.
But many of those who demonstrated last month were reluctant to celebrate, because they want more: they want the government to admit that “zero Covid” was a big mistake. They are always filled with anger, frustration and sadness. Empowered by activism, they want to continue to fight for their rights and hold their government to account.
They are delighted that the Chinese public will be freed from the constant testing, quarantines and lockdowns that have become an integral part of their lives. Yet they are angry that the government has not, and probably never will, apologize for its misstep, which has caused much unnecessary death and suffering.
They know that their destiny is still subject to the will of one person, the country’s highest leader, Xi Jinping. They worry that China’s lack of adequate preparation to ease restrictions could again leave the public suffering the consequences of poor governance.
Miranda, a journalist who protested in Shanghai, said her biggest lesson from three years of “zero Covid” was that people can die when a country takes a wrong turn. “This cost is too high,” she said.
Another protester, Tung, a student in the eastern city of Nanjing, invoked the memory of the doctor who was silenced in 2020 after trying to warn China about the coronavirus. He later died of the virus.
“Dr. Li Wenliang will not be able to return,” she said. “Nor will many people who have lost their lives because of overzealous pandemic policies. the normal campus life of our college years.
Calling herself and her fellow protesters “people of destiny”, she said, “I will continue to fight”.
It’s hard to say to what extent the November protests – the most political and widespread since the 1989 pro-democracy protests – played a role in the government’s decision to lift restrictions earlier than expected. The economy had collapsed for some time. There have been numerous clashes between local authorities and residents.
Understand what is happening in China
But why Beijing acted when it did was obvious to many who participated in the protests, as well as those who did not: The protests opened a crack in the oppressive darkness, leaving enter light and hope.
“Because of the protesters, I am hopeful for the future of China,” said Tate, who served as a high school teacher for more than three decades in the southern city of Shenzhen. Ye Qing, a lawyer in Beijing, wrote on Twitter about a November 27 protest in Shanghai: “This is when the people restarted this country. The time may have finally begun.
The protesters I spoke to are sober about their role and about the future.
But they are now even more motivated to take their destiny into their own hands. They realize that because they can’t vote, the government is free to impose more policies like ‘zero Covid’, just as it caused disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in generations of their parents and grandparents.
They know they are up against the most powerful authoritarian government on the planet and the most iron-fisted Chinese leader in decades. Their recent protests have certainly had no impact on the power structure in Beijing.
But they’ve busted the myth that it’s beyond the challenge. Overnight, many Chinese people, especially young protesters, realized that Mr. Xi is not God and his grip on power is not unbreakable, several Chinese scholars told me.
I spoke to protesters almost every day and heard this sentiment time and time again: “One person shouldn’t have that much power.
Three of them were detained by the police for 24 hours and another was summoned for questioning. A fifth person I spoke to was repeatedly harassed by their school counselor, who even called their parents. The others keep a low profile.
All said they would not hesitate to take to the streets in the future or get involved in other forms of protest, such as using the iPhone’s Airdrop feature to share slogans with subway riders. – or write them in the form of graffiti on public toilets.
Everyone I interviewed asked me to only use their first name, last name, nickname or English name to protect their safety.
One of the arrested protesters said his blood was drawn, his irises scanned and his phone taken away. She was ordered to take off all her clothes for a body search. The experience left her fearful. Still, she shared her experience on my Chinese podcast, so others know what to expect.
She said she had not been political in the past. But that changed after censors deleted eight of her accounts on the Weibo platform for posting or reposting tragic social events, many of which involved women.
People protested for different reasons, she said. For her, it was about freedom of expression; for others it was a cry to be free from censorship, to watch the movies they wanted. But they share one goal: they want a new government.
The future of the movement these protesters hope to have started lies in two things: their organization and public support.
They won over some middle-aged people, who had their own political awakenings. A few of them contacted me to express their gratitude to the protesters.
Protesters know it is nearly impossible to compete with a government that has the most technologically sophisticated propaganda apparatus in human history.
Miranda, the reporter, said she planned to spend more time talking to her friends, trying to convince them. The next time protesters raise their voices, she said, they will have more supporters on their side.
One evening last month, Atong, another student from Nanjing, went out alone to post handwritten protest signs, because he did not trust anyone enough to ask them to come with him, and because two people were allegedly more visible. Now he is one of 80 students at his university in an encrypted chat group, calling themselves “rebels” and brainstorming ideas on what to do next.
He pointed to a few recent gatherings at universities, where students successfully negotiated changes in Covid policies with their administrators. It would have been unimaginable a few weeks earlier, he said.
But, I asked the demonstrators, what if this silent resistance died out? What if the years go by and nothing changes?
Most said they were ready to stay there. A recent college graduate, Xia, said she has seen the government crack down on the rights of LGBTQ people like her in recent years. She felt she had to fight.
“It could take us five to ten years, or even longer,” she said. “For many of us, we would be satisfied if we could see a free and democratic China in our lifetime.”