In central China, students chanted demands for more transparency on Covid rules, while avoiding the bold slogans that angered the Communist Party a week earlier. In Shanghai, residents successfully negotiated with local authorities to stop the lockdown on their neighborhood. And despite pressure from officials, a team of volunteer lawyers from across China, committed to upholding the right of citizens to express their views, received anxious calls from protesters.
The recent wave of protests that gripped China was sparked by frustration over pandemic restrictions, but the unrest has also sometimes led to calls for China’s leader Xi Jinping to step down. Since then, the police have been on hand to prevent a resurgence and mass protests have subsided. Since then, a low-key murmur of resistance against the authorities has persisted, suggesting that the large demonstrations emboldened a small but significant number of people, including students, professionals and manual workers.
None of those local acts amount to much of a challenge to Mr. Xi and the Communist Party. But they suggest that residents are less afraid to challenge the bureaucracy, albeit in a more measured and tactical way. They often invoke China’s own laws and political promises, an approach less likely to draw the ire of Communist Party leaders.
“There are people shouting demands that are also mine, and I am extremely grateful, grateful that they were able to speak for me,” said Wang Shengsheng, a lawyer in Zhengzhou, central China. Ms. Wang helped compile a list of more than a dozen lawyers available to provide free advice over the phone to people in Shanghai and elsewhere concerned about the repercussions of participating in vigils and protests.
“I am sure that the number of people who spoke out this time, especially the youth, will later shape some policy changes,” she said. “I am sure that the decision makers are not a monolithic iron block.”
In late November, dozens of protests erupted across China, sparked by anger over a deadly fire in Urumqi, capital of the western Xinjiang region. The result was the boldest and most widespread demonstrations in China since the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
The Urumqi government had strongly denied widespread rumors that the residents killed in the fire (10 by the official count) had been trapped in their apartments by Covid restrictions. But many Chinese were unconvinced and the grief turned to broader anger over widespread lockdowns, virus testing and limits on travel. At rallies in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, some protesters called on Mr. Xi and the Communist Party to step down from power.
Since then, the Chinese government has taken a two-pronged approach: detaining some protesters and warning potential protesters, and allowing local governments to drop some of the Covid rules that have frustrated the public. Xi has not spoken publicly about the protests, and it is unclear to what extent the displays of dissent influenced his decision to adjust the policy. But many Chinese seem to believe that the national defiance played an important role. Now they can try to keep up the pressure in smaller ways.
“I think what’s going to happen is people will coordinate, it’ll be low-level, it’ll look individualized and spontaneous, but there’s going to be learning and discussion behind the scenes,” said Mary Gallagher, a University of Michigan professor who studies politics and social change in China.
Understanding the protests in China
“That is what needs to be done in a politically repressive environment,” he said. “It’s really going to put pressure on local governments not to shut down.”
Despite China’s burly authoritarian rule, local protests are not uncommon. Before Covid, they often focused on government land seizures, pollution outbreaks, and unpaid wages. Since the pandemic, outbursts of discontent have continued. But this renewed pattern of local unrest will test Xi’s government at a particularly sensitive time, as China seeks to ease covid restrictions while trying to prevent a runaway surge in infections.
Hundreds of students from Wuhan University, in the city where the pandemic first took hold in late 2019, gathered on a recent rainy afternoon to call for changes to Covid policies, according to a video that has been verified by The New York Times. “An open process, transparent information,” they chanted while holding umbrellas over their heads.
That relatively bland catchphrase seemed to be a considered move. A student at the university said classmates were unhappy with the university’s plans to restore in-person teaching, which had upset their plans to go home for a break after months of living under restrictions. The student, who asked to be identified only by his last name, Wu, for fear of repercussions, said he had not attended the rally but had seen videos shared by classmates. He noted that none of the protesters had held pieces of white paper, which have become a symbol of defiance of the government.
The school relented, allowing students to return home and choose between online or face-to-face classes, Wu said.
While some cities in China have begun to ease lockdown restrictions, not all local officials have followed suit. They continue to come under heavy pressure to contain outbreaks, even as top leaders want to appear sympathetic to public impatience.
In a wealthy district of Shanghai on Sunday afternoon, security teams blocked the entrance to an apartment complex after a local committee ordered a lockdown after discovering a case of Covid in a building.
Angry residents soon confronted the guards, challenging the closure as illegal. “You have no right!” a woman is seen screaming repeatedly in a video posted on Twitter. Hours later, the police arrived and supported the neighbors. A neighborhood committee worker at the apartment complex told The New York Times that the closures were lifted “after compromise and coordination.”
In Wuhan over the weekend, residents of a neighborhood took matters into their own hands and took to the streets after tearing down the barriers that had kept them locked in. as seen in a video posted on Twitter.
With so much risk of participating in the protests, Chinese residents are using an older tactic: quoting the words of central leaders to rebuff local officials. For centuries, disgruntled people have seized on central government edicts to make their case, often appealing to the idea, sincerely held or as a ploy, that a well-intentioned ruler in Beijing has been duped by corrupt or disloyal officials.
“It’s this idea that you can use the words of central government against local overreach,” Professor Gallagher said. “And it protects you, because the central government is supposed to be benevolent.”
The Chinese are invoking the law to negotiate and reject persistent pandemic restrictions. In areas that have failed to ease lockdowns, residents have pointed to the government’s move in early November to pressure local authorities to take a more targeted approach to Covid control.
Local clashes in Shanghai and Wuhan point to the impatience of locked-down residents who are more concerned with paying off mortgages, reviving battered businesses and getting children back to regular school.
“We want to lift the lockdown, our children need to go to school,” shouted residents of an apartment complex in Wuxi, eastern China, as they resisted the lockdown of their complex. a video posted on Twitter showed. “We need to earn money to feed our families. We want to eat.”
Members of the legal community have also stepped up to help raise residents’ awareness of their rights. As authorities moved to detain protesters and search residents’ phones in recent days, often without clear justification, legal advice circulated online in China. One of those articles described the rights of citizens in case a police officer demands to search their phones.
In that articleThe author, who belongs to a Shanghai law firm, invokes the Chinese Constitution and concludes: “Arbitrary content checks of citizens’ cell phones are a serious violation of citizens’ privacy and an abuse of public power.” .
However, some of those who have spoken continue to face increased pressure. Ms. Wang, 37, the lawyer who helped coordinate advice for concerned protesters and her friends and family, said she had received phone calls from local officials.
He said he had decided to help the protesters and their families after seeing images circulating on Chinese social media of the vigil in Shanghai commemorating those killed in Urumqi. She said that she had received a couple of dozen calls, including from people who had been detained and questioned and who wanted to know their rights.
Over the past decade, the Chinese authorities have tried to silence human rights lawyers by revoking their lawyer’s licenses or arresting and imprisoning them. But Ms. Wang said that she had no reason to worry.
“In my opinion, I’m just providing a little bit of legal advisory services” to the people who participated in the protests, he said.
“How come if some people think they were wrong, then I am also wrong simply for giving them legal advice?” she added. “That is fundamentally contrary to the idea of the rule of law.”