Chinese protests are about more than just COVID – student discontent has fueled the largest movement since Tiananmen Square | Pro IQRA News

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Protests have broken out across China, initially in response to the killing of ten people in a fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang in the northwest of the country. The demonstrations represent the biggest expression of public unrest since the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was brutally crushed.

The deaths have been blamed on China’s strict policy not to spread the coronavirus. The deceased were reportedly prevented from leaving the burning building and their deaths sparked an outpouring of grief and anger.

Students have led many demonstrations. According to international media reports, by November 27, students from at least 79 universities in 15 provinces in China had staged public protests of varying sizes.

Students have a range of grievances, one of them being the no COVID policy. But more broadly, many are protesting the regime’s stifling of free expression and its heavy political control. On one campus – Tsinghua University in Beijing – a video captured hundreds of students gathering to air their grievances.

A young woman gave a speech saying:

If we do not dare to speak out because we are afraid of being arrested, I think our people will be disappointed with us. As a student of Tsinghua University, I will regret it for the rest of my life!

In the background, a large number of students chanted the slogan: “Democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression.”

Beijing students protest.

The protests were dubbed the “A4 Revolution” or the “Blank Paper Revolution”, after the students expressed their anger and discontent by holding up white A4 sheets, symbolizing the silencing of protest, defiance, and rejection of state censorship and surveillance.

The problem is with the students

Since the student pro-democracy movement was crushed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, campus protests have been a rarity in China. This drew criticism from China expert Elizabeth Perry of Harvard University, who accused the Chinese Academy of what she called “educated acquiescence”.

In a 2020 paper, How the Academy Sustains Authoritarianism in China, Perry criticized students and academics alike for “adhering in political conformity in exchange for the many benefits the state bestows on them.” In doing so, Perry argues, academia has supported the authoritarian rule of the regime in China.

But recently — even before the Xinjiang fire — discontent was evident on Chinese university campuses. The growing anger over prolonged, COVID-free lockdowns has added to the hidden unrest in worsening economic conditions that has led to soaring unemployment and a waning belief among young people in Xi Jinping’s nationalist “China Dream”.

China has imposed lockdowns in various parts of the country almost continuously for three years. Chaotic and harsh surveillance measures across the country caused great disruption to daily life, not only loss of freedom of movement but also food shortages and various forms of psychological harm.

As in many Western universities, but on a larger scale, student lives are severely disrupted and there is widespread disillusionment. One of the protesters’ tactics that has captured international media attention is the bizarre ritual that has come to be known as the “crowd crawl”.

Social media was flooded with footage of students forming a circle and crawling on their hands and knees. The ritual was designed to express frustration with boredom with endless closing conditions, which were said to represent an attempt to use “meaninglessness to resist meaninglessness”.

Students’ frustration with the bleak economic outlook and associated bleak job prospects is huge. The Chinese government’s legitimacy is centered on its economic performance and the 40 years of rapid economic growth achieved by the Communist Party.

The coronavirus has changed the trajectory of China’s economic trajectory, and it’s no wonder the labor market has suffered. In July 2022, the youth unemployment rate reached 19.9%. And with 11.58 million students expected to graduate into the labor market next year, the prospects for these students do not look bright.

It is a measure of how disillusioned this feeling is among young people, with many accusing the government of censoring coverage of the World Cup in Qatar because fans there do not wear masks.

Shi problem

Lockdowns and bleak economic prospects are undermining young people’s confidence in Xi’s much-touted nationalist vision. We are now seeing even some staunch supporters of the administration questioning and openly criticizing its zero-COVID policies on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and some of the more daring young people protesting in China voicing an unprecedented demand that “Xi Jinping step down”.

Students protest in Shanghai.

China’s unattainable zero-COVID policy is hung around Xi’s neck. The Chinese leader has achieved a cult of personality and control not seen since the days of Mao Zedong and recently secured an unprecedented third term as leader at the 20th Party Congress in October, essentially making him a “ruler for life”. But what appears to be a political miscalculation over the zero-COVID policy, which has no end in sight as infection numbers continue to soar to record levels, has made it the most challenging test yet.

Read more: China: Make no mistake about Xi Jinping’s campaigns for a second cultural revolution

Students have now been sent home from their universities. The security services are working overtime to stifle dissent in the streets and in cyberspace. But Xi’s reputation is now tarnished, perhaps irrevocably. It is hard to see these grievances on campus and beyond simply disappearing quietly.


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