China’s Unprecedented Protests, Explained

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An apartment fire in Urumqi, China, left at least 10 dead and injured at least nine others on Nov. 24, sparking nationwide and global protests against the Chinese Communist Party’s “zero-COVID-19” policy.

“It was really sparked by the fire in Urumqi. So, China has sort of a practice in its ‘zero-COVID’ policy of when it locks down cities or buildings, lots of times it’ll erect barricades or sometimes even lock or weld people inside,” said Michael Cunningham, a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.) 

“And so, we’re not sure if any of that happened, but there’s a public perception that that was probably the case, and that that’s one of the reasons why so many people died in that fire,” he said.

Cunningham also discussed what the protesters are risking by speaking out against the communist regime. 

“Well, the protesters are risking everything. The [Chinese Communist Party] is an extremely powerful and an extremely brutal regime. It does not accept any dissent. So, I have to say, protests are not unheard of in China. They’re actually quite common, but they’re usually against local officials,” he explained.

“And so the stakes there aren’t nearly as high as when you’re literally standing up as some protesters have and said the [Chinese Communist Party] and [President] Xi Jinping have to go. Or when they’re standing up and saying, ‘No more totalitarianism. We want democracy,’ which is what we heard in some of the protests, as well, over the weekend,” Cunningham added. 

Cunningham joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the ongoing civil unrest throughout China and protests around the world, the likelihood that Xi could be ousted, and the Vatican’s criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript, below.

Samantha Aschieris: Over the weekend, protests erupted throughout China, and even throughout the world, in response to the nation’s zero-COVID policy, as well as a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi that left at least 10 people dead and at least nine people injured. I’m thrilled to welcome back Michael Cunningham, a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center here at The Heritage Foundation, to discuss these protests and more. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

Michael Cunningham: Thanks for having me again.

Aschieris: Of course. Now, first and foremost, can you tell us about these protests?

Cunningham: Yeah. Well, you gave a good introduction of what happened. It was really sparked by the fire in Urumqi. So China has sort of a practice in its zero-COVID policy of when it locks down cities or buildings, lots of times it’ll erect barricades or sometimes even lock or weld people inside. And so we’re not sure if any of that happened, but there’s a public perception that that was probably the case and that that’s one of the reasons why so many people died in that fire.

Now, what was surprising about it, though, was that protests just erupted. So my contacts on the ground in China explain how they literally, their WeChat, the social messaging app that is widely used in China, it just exploded over the weekend with just angry messages about the [Chinese Communist Party] regime, about zero-COVID, about [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, really unprecedented. 

And so it was sparked because of this fire. But there’s a lot of pent-up anger about the zero-COVID policies and about the erosion of individual freedoms, really, especially since Xi Jinping came to power, but more generally—and there’s a lot of concern and a feeling of desperation that a lot of people in China have as Xi has further consolidated his power. They’re worried about going back to previous periods of, well, other periods of one-man rule that have been characterized by just instability and bad policies.

Aschieris: One thing that I noticed while researching this unrest and looking at different photos was the use of white paper by protesters. What is this about? What’s the meaning behind it? I read that they’re labeling it, some reports are labeling it “the white paper protest.”

Cunningham: Yeah, so, using white papers, this is a pretty classic Chinese form of protest. They used it in Hong Kong as well after the government started cracking down. And it’s because they’re basically protesting the fact that they can’t say anything anyway. Anything they write on that paper would be considered reactionary and the government could prosecute them for it. And so even not writing anything on that paper can result in them going to jail. But that’s one thing they’ve done, is this white paper. 

The Chinese have very creative ways of protesting. In Tsinghua University, I believe it was Tsinghua, over the weekend we also saw a bunch of math students who held up a mathematical equation that means absolutely nothing to you and me, but it’s actually an equation called the Friedmann equation. And, of course, it’s a play on words, a freed man.

Aschieris: Wow, that’s pretty clever. I want to talk a little bit more about the protesters themselves, and as we’ve been talking about the lockdowns, what have these lockdowns been like? How long have they been going on and what is the severity of the lockdowns? Can people go anywhere?

Cunningham: It’s different in every city that’s locked down and every community that’s locked down. Urumqi had been locked down for about a hundred days. So we had the most visibility in the lockdowns in Shanghai this spring. We could see the lack of mobility.

But every city is different. And some of them, one person in the family can, or in a household, can leave every couple days to go grocery shopping and some nobody can leave. Generally, someone who’s under quarantine in China, what they’ll do is they’ll actually put an alarm on your door that if you open the door for more than a few seconds, it will actually alert the local police station. So you really cannot leave home.

Aschieris: And let’s say if people do leave home or even these protesters themselves, what are they risking? What are the potential consequences of their actions?

Cunningham: Well, the protesters are risking everything. The CCP is an extremely powerful and an extremely brutal regime. It does not accept any dissent. So I have to say, protests are not unheard of in China. They’re actually quite common, but they’re usually against local officials. And so the stakes there aren’t nearly as high as when you’re literally standing up as some protesters have and said the CCP and Xi Jinping have to go. Or when they’re standing up and saying, “No more totalitarianism. We want democracy,” which is what we heard in some of the protests as well over the weekend.

So some of these people, it just shows how much desperation they have that they’re standing up and openly defying this regime that literally can disappear them. And we only have to look at the people who survived the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Some of them have yet to see the light of day. Most of them who were punished for that, many of them have had their lives ruined.

Aschieris: I want to talk a little bit more about the Tiananmen Square protests and also Xi Jinping. We talked about this previously on the podcast, he was just given, secured a third five-year term, and we’ve seen these protests, as you mentioned, calling for his removal, the end to the CCP and the calls for democracy. How likely is that in China? What’s your prediction there?

Cunningham: Extremely unlikely. In order to take down the CCP or Xi—so the likelihood of Xi being removed from power would definitely be higher than the CCP. But basically, at this point, in order for protesters to topple the CCP, it would require for there to be a split in the top leadership of the CCP. And following the party congress, with Xi’s unprecedented consolidation of power, that’s even less likely than it already was. The leadership are Xi’s people. 

It’s very unlikely that that’s going to happen. But if things get really bad—and it would also take the senior leadership to decide that Xi has to go, which is also very unlikely. We don’t know right now if the protests are even going to continue long term or if they’re pretty much going to wind down. It’s a very dynamic situation right now. But if they do continue long term, it’s probably not going to end well for the protesters.

Aschieris: Yeah, that was actually another one of my questions, was, how long do you think these protests will go on? Do you think they’ll continue to get bigger or will they stay about the size that they are now?

Cunningham: Well, right now, it’s not yet a mass movement like what we saw in Hong Kong a few years ago, where every sector of society is involved in, to some extent. 

Right now, so far, they’re mostly localized protests, except they’re happening all throughout the country. But we’re talking universities, protesting on campus, people protesting near their communities. It’s very hard to organize large-scale protests due to the surveillance state, due to the fact that all of their communications can be monitored and will be. 

So it’s an open question. As I said, it’s a very dynamic situation. Things could continue to escalate from here. Things seemed relatively quiet last night in China, or I guess tonight in China because of the time difference compared to over the weekend. … So they could end pretty quickly, but if they continue and it continues to escalate, then we could see things go on for quite some time.

Aschieris: And where these protests are happening, you just mentioned in universities, more at the local level, is there any significance to where these protests are happening location wise?

Cunningham: Usually not. In Shanghai there is because the biggest protest in Shanghai occurred on a street that is called Urumqi Street. So that was a natural place for them to congregate. But in most cases, it’s occurring, my understanding is that in most of these cities, it’s really occurring maybe in front of a certain residential community and they’re coming out and protesting. We’re talking hundreds to a couple thousand people. We’re not yet talking, at the height of the Hong Kong protests, they had a protest of 2 million people.

Aschieris: Wow.

Cunningham: Yeah. So we’re talking like a quarter of the city’s population, and we haven’t seen anything even approaching that.

Aschieris: Earlier you brought up Tiananmen Square, and I want to get your thoughts on something that China expert Gordon Chang said on Fox News on Monday. And he talked about this is actually more dangerous than 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre, because then protesters really wanted to keep the Communist Party in place, but just wanted to replace some hard-line leaders. This is more like 1949 where the Chinese people had just given up on the nationalist government of Chaing Kai-shek and then the communists came in. What do you think of Gordon’s comments? Is that a fair comparison?

Cunningham: It’s too early to know actually the extent of these protests, and I would say in some locations that’s absolutely correct. In some locations, they are actively calling for Xi and the CCP to step down. In some locations, they’re literally just calling for an end to COVID restrictions and for a return of the freedoms that they’re used to. And so it’s yet to be determined what direction these protests are going to move, if they ever do sort of turn into one coherent movement.

Aschieris: And I also wanted to get your thoughts on the White House. They put out a response on Monday. It was tweeted by Kristin Brown of CBS News, saying, “We’ve said that zero COVID is not a policy we are pursuing here in the United States. And 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 the virus through their zero COVID strategy.” 

The statement also said, “For us, we are focused on what works, and that means using the public health tools like continuing to enhance vaccination rates, including boosters and making testing and treatment easily accessible. We’ve long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC.” 

Do you have any thoughts on the White House’s comments?

Cunningham: Yeah. I’m glad you asked that question. I can’t think of a weaker response to what’s happening in China. We have people living under one of the world’s most repressive regimes, which happens to be our greatest geopolitical rival. And they’re standing up in defiance of their regime, standing up for freedom, in some cases for democracy. And that’s the best that the leader of the free world can do? It seems very weak to me.

The U.S. should be standing up for freedom and democracy. We should also be going on the offensive to show the world just how dysfunctional CCP rule is. China attempts to show the world that we’re dysfunctional. They don’t do a very good job of that, but we should be showing the world the huge flaws of their governing model and we should be standing up for freedom and democracy.

I would also say, one other thing is that I personally have known pro-democracy advocates in China, who, particularly in the Obama years, told me how disappointed in the U.S. they were that our president was not standing up for protesters in other countries, whereas the U.S. cannot be seen. 

The CCP is already going to say that the U.S. is somehow behind these protests. We cannot give them any reason to believe that their government is actually right there, but we should stand up and at least make the right statements and support these wonderful people who are standing up and putting everything on the line for their freedom.

Aschieris: And just along the same lines, we had Florida Rep. Mike Waltz coming out and calling on the Biden administration to denounce China’s inhumane lockdowns immediately. He said this in a tweet. Do you expect the White House to do this, especially after the statement that they put out?

Cunningham: Do I reasonably expect them to do it? No, I don’t expect that they will. I wish they would.

Aschieris: Now, on an unrelated but somewhat related note, over the weekend, the Vatican accused China of violating its agreement on bishop appointments. The deal was originally signed in 2018 and renewed for the second time last month. It essentially allows the Chinese Communist Party to participate in selecting Catholic bishops, though Pope Francis has the final say, The Associated Press previously reported.

According to Vatican News, the Holy See Press Office released a statement on Saturday noting the surprise and regret of the Holy See upon receiving the news of an installation ceremony that took place on Nov. 24 of a bishop. 

What do you think of this allegation by the Vatican? Are you surprised that China allegedly violated this agreement?

Cunningham: A couple things. First, we’re not really sure what the agreement is because it’s never been released. So I think that’s the first red flag here that, well, the Vatican has clearly seen the agreement or believes it knows the agreement. I have heard it may even just be a verbal agreement that’s not even in writing, which is probably not to the Vatican’s benefit.

The other thing is, did the Vatican actually expect the CCP to abide by an agreement? The only reason for religion as far as the CCP is concerned is to bolster its own claims to legitimacy. So that’s the whole point of its agreement with the Vatican.

I guess the other thing I would say is the Vatican renewed its agreement during, based on these reports, there was a prolonged pressure campaign ahead of this bishop’s appointment. And during, it must have been during this pressure campaign that the Vatican renewed this agreement with Beijing. So the question is, why would they renew the agreement given that this was going on?

And also, it so happened that there’s also a Catholic cardinal, Joseph Zen, in Hong Kong who is actually awaiting likely charges under Hong Kong’s national security law. And so this agreement was also renewed while all this is going on. And so, unfortunately, this seems like a problem the Vatican essentially brought upon itself by entering an agreement with a side that clearly had no intention of abiding by the agreement.

Aschieris: Michael, just before we go, is there anything else that you would like to add regarding the unrest that we’ve been seeing in China and even throughout the world?

Cunningham: Well, it’s positive that we see people in other countries as well demonstrating in support of the Chinese protesters. I would say we have to have realistic expectations, on the one hand, that this is highly unlikely to topple the CCP, but we should be supporting them. The Chinese people, they very much, they desire freedom. Many of them desire democracy, and many of them do support their government. There’s a huge mix there.

But the Chinese people, they’re going to be, or they really are, they see themselves, many of them, as being involved in a protracted long-term struggle for freedom. And they’re not on the winning side right now, but when we see them stand up against this oppressive regime, this essentially all-powerful regime that can decide their futures, it shows just both how desperate they are and also that that’s a huge spark of freedom that’s in them. So we should be supporting them.

Aschieris: Well, Michael Cunningham, thank you so much for joining us today. It was great to have you back on. Again, Michael Cunningham, a research fellow here at The Heritage Foundation. Thanks so much.

Cunningham: Thank you.