Scholars look at ramifications from ‘zero COVID’ protests in China

The Center for the Study of Contemporary China, in co-sponsorship with Perry World House, held a forum to discuss the protests and what they mean for China and its citizens going forward.

Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, Jacques deLisle, holds a microphone as he speaks on a panel with other experts about the China protests
Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, (center, holding microphone) speaks with other experts on a panel at Perry World House that looked at the recent protests in China.

Late last month protests erupted in several cities around China against the nation’s “zero COVID” policy and lockdowns. They were triggered by a deadly apartment fire that was difficult to quell due to lockdown measures. Soon, the protests—where participants held up blank sheets of paper to send their message without officially saying anything—became something broader, some even going as far as calling for the ouster of the Chinese Communist Party regime.

The Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC), in co-sponsorship with Perry World House, held a forum to discuss the protests, which have now largely shut down due to crackdowns and arrests.

Seven CSCC scholars made opening remarks, followed by an audience Q&A session. The scholars included Jacques deLisle, CSCC director; Guobin Yang, Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology; Amy Gadsden, executive director of Penn China Initiatives; Hongshen Zhu, CSCC postdoctoral fellow; Neysun Mahboubi, CSCC research scholar; Jing Wang, senior research manager at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication; and Zoe Mengyang Zhao, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology.

DeLisle started off the panel by giving an overview of the current situation, citing government promises in the aftermath of the protests to relax COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’ll see how that’s going to play out, given what I think most people would say is a dilemma between the need to relax ‘zero COVID’ because of the social oppressiveness and economic cost and on the other hand the fear of, if you take the lid off, it will cause some potentially significant public health problems,” he said, noting the low vaccination rate of the elderly, the limited capacity of the public health systems and hospitals, as well as the political costs for the regime, which had prided itself on keeping infection rates very low. “We’ll almost certainly see infection rates spike quite sharply.”

He turned the discussion over to the other participants to share their thoughts on the events.

Yang said creativity has always been part of the protest culture in contemporary China. The use of new tactics in current protests is part of that creative protest culture. Protesters upset by the apartment fire deaths during the lockdown have taken to the streets in cities around the country, some chanting slogans like “lift the lockdown,” others holding up blank sheets of paper as a way to avoid censorship or arrest. One protester was arrested for simply holding flowers.

Many protests erupted during the early Wuhan lockdown, he said.

“People were protesting, not against the lockdowns but against the bad implementation of the lockdown policies,” he said. He also pointed to protests in Shanghai in April to illustrate how recent events aren’t coming out of the blue.

“Knowing that history will be helpful,” Yang said. “We have to have a better understanding of history because activists and protesters consciously or unconsciously will draw from history and tradition in very creative forms of protest, like the use of (blank) paper.”

Gadsden told the audience she’d been reflecting on the current protests within the context of China’s last century and the common conception that China’s 20th century is a vacillation between reform and revolution.

“Rereading some of the literature around the 1911 revolutions—that was a revolution brought about by a failure to reform,” she said.

The slogan that has governed China from the 1970s through the early 2000s was “reform and opening up,” she said, adding it was the embrace of reform in China in the 1970s that has been the key to China's success during the last 40 years.

“So what is 2022? What is the COVID-19 period? Is this going to be a moment for China to deepen its reform, which has been so successful over the last 40 years, or will it entrench itself in a way that might position things for more dramatic change?” she said.

Her main conclusion after watching the events over that last two weeks is that China can change. 

“It sounds obvious, but there is this assumption that often gets made that somehow the Chinese Communist Party is incapable of changing,” she said. “Will the party continue to reform as it needs to or is it becoming so brittle that is incapable of reform?”

Zhu noted that from Nov. 26 to Nov. 28, local officials in the cities where protests broke out made concessions to the demands of protesters and relaxed their COVID-19 restrictions. The central government also loosened up restrictions but lagged behind the local response, where officials did a delicate dance of balancing zero COVID rules and social stability.

“For officials facing protests, lockdowns and pursuing zero COVID now harmed their political survival while letting infection cases rise has become less risky,” he said. “Both protests and epidemics are emergencies that need local discretion to make firsthand responses based on the knowledge on the ground.” 

These events have highlighted the key role of local governments’ decision making and the decentralized nature of China’s endemic control. 

“It is largely local officials’ fear of punishment that led to the reckless and brutal pursuit of zero COVID policy. Ironically, it is also local officials’ fear of punishment that is spearheading the end of zero COVID,” he said.

As a scholar of Chinese law, Mahboubi focused his remarks on legal rhetoric deployed by many of the protestors, including references to new “optimized” pandemic control measures that had been issued a few weeks before. Mahboubi noted that, in advancing “policy-based” arguments like these, protestors were echoing Chinese legal scholars who, since the start of the pandemic, found ways of resisting specific pandemic control actions based on reference to Chinese laws and regulations.

Speakers on a stage at Perry World House discuss the protests in China.
Jing Wang (holding microphone) discussed the victims of the fire that led to the recent protests, and how their deaths should be understood in the larger context of the Chinese government’s treatment of the entire Uighur population.

For example, at the very start of the pandemic, Wuhan local authorities failed to report the emergence of the novel coronavirus in a timely manner, as required by the reporting system set up in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS crisis. Once these failures were made clear, Chinese legal scholars documented these issues in various commentaries and proposed how the reporting system ought to be reformed to avoid similar failures in the future.

Similarly, during and after the Shanghai lockdown in April, a number of Chinese legal scholars criticized actions like locking people in their houses, taking the keys away, or forcing nucleic acid testing, as being in conflict with Chinese laws and regulations.

In emphasizing how protestors were making similar kinds of arguments last week, Mahboubi drew attention to the recurrence of this kind of convergence. “Throughout the history of reform and opening, there have been lots of times where the boundary between precise legal argumentation and the arguments by protesters have had this kind of connection,” he said, referencing the notion of “rightful resistance.”

“That’s exactly what you were seeing in these protests and it’s not particularly new. What’s interesting about it is that it’s still happening,” he said. “There’s a new generation, and a new type of political actor in these students, who are engaging in this form of ‘policy-based’ contention we’ve seen before.”

Wang handed out blank white pieces of computer paper to audience members and panelists and asked attendees to hold up the papers as she read the names of the victims of the Nov. 24 fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

She noted the mother and four children who died were Uighurs, and said their deaths should be understood in the larger context of the Chinese government’s mistreatment of the entire Uighur population.

As for the white papers, she quoted media scholar Marshall McLuhan saying, “the medium is the message.” 

“The lack of any written or drawn information on these white papers transcends linguistic boundaries, not just in China, but in fact this use of white paper that would be used by other protesters all around the world,” she said.

We have to have a better understanding of history because activists and protesters consciously or unconsciously will draw from history and tradition in very creative forms of protest, like the use of paper. Guobin Yang, Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology

From Hong Kong to Thailand, Kazakhstan, Iran and Russia, people have held up white papers in varied protests against authoritarian rule—and continue to do so, she said.

It’s effective because it’s a cheap, easy, convenient way to dodge censorship, but she noted that, inside China, white papers are banned from being printed and sold for a short period of time.

Zhao told the audience of the difficulties on the ground for activists, especially nontraditional activists, during these current protests.

People are still being arrested every day, she said, and because many of the protesters are not affiliated with the activist community or known to the media, it has been very difficult to locate these missing people.

“It is still an urgent issue to advocate for the release of all arrested people in China,” she said.

She touched on everything from the need for conversations on how to protect the rights and privacy of the Uighur and Chinese diaspora, especially those without a permanent residence or green card, to ways for protesters to safely use encrypted platforms that are facing surveillance from the Chinese government, and the way women and gender issues have been treated at protests, even in the United States, to the role of the working class in the protests.

“Manufacturing and service workers now are critical catalysts for the ongoing protests, and women workers also played a pivotal role,” she said.

DeLisle touched on the implications of the current situation on U.S.-China relations.

“It’s obviously been a fraught time, long before the protests and even before COVID itself erupted. During the last presidential administration here, COVID became a factor in the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship with all the blaming of China by U.S. politicians and tit-for-tat responses from China. In many ways, the relationship still has not improved much,” he said. 

The recent meetings between Xi Jinping and President Biden attempted to “put a floor under the deteriorating relationship but little more,” he said.

Looking narrowly at the impact of the protests, if the U.S. were to support protesters too enthusiastically, it would make it easier for China to blame the U.S. as the Black Hand behind them and could further imperil protesters.

“I think the Biden administration has been trying to walk a delicate line, supporting the values without painting itself into a corner where it would have to impose sanctions or give excessive hope for support to people facing a crackdown,” he said.

The talk then turned to audience questions, addressing topics like what lessons have been learned by top officials after the protests to whether the freedom protesters speak of extends to more than just freedom from lockdowns.

In closing, Gadsden noted that throughout these three years of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students have still been welcomed to the United States. 

However, the number of U.S. students going to China has plummeted because of COVID-19 lockdowns. In the years before the pandemic, the number of U.S. students going to China fluctuated between 11,000 and 14,000 a year. Currently there are about 400 U.S. students in China, she said.

“We have a whole college cohort—this graduating senior class of 2023 across the United States—none of them will have traveled to China as part of their undergraduate experience,” she said. 

“I worry about the impact of this on our next generation of China scholars, people who are at the forefront of building friendship and communicating and thinking about ways to understand and explain China to non-Chinese audiences. It’s something that will be important to address.”

Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law at Penn Carey Law and professor of political science in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as the director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

Guobin Yang is the Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology, with appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of Penn’s Center on Digital Culture and Society and deputy director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

Amy Gadsden is the associate vice provost for global initiatives and the executive director of Penn China Initiatives.

Neysun A. Mahboubi is a research scholar of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

Hongshen Zhu is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Contemporary China

Jing Wang is the senior research manager at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC) at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Mengyang (Zoe) Zhao is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and a doctoral fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication’s Center on Digital Culture and Society.