Why are there protests in China right now? Anger mounts over country's 'zero-Covid policy'

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Not since police and protesters violently clashed at Tiananmen Square in 1989 has there been such large-scale, public dissent in the People's Republic of China. Protests broke out this week over the country's stringent "zero COVID policy" after 10 were killed in an apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital city of the northwestern Xinjiang region.

Though authorities maintain the policy had no bearing on the deadly blaze, critics insist emergency personnel couldn't help as quickly as possible because the city was under a strict 100-day lockdown.

In several major cities, and on various college campuses individuals have gathered for vigils and demonstrations, expressing grief for those lost and anger at the country's comparatively strict pandemic policies.

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What caused the protests in China?

Civil unrest sprung up in China over the past week in response to the government's strict lockdown procedures — part of the country’s signature ‘zero COVID policy.’

The protests, triggered by an apartment fire in Urumqi, signify growing anger over strict coronavirus lockdown measures. At least 10 people were killed, and some later blamed lockdown procedures they say prevented emergency responders from entering the building sooner. Urumqi had been under lockdown for 100 days.

In China, a country that does not welcome public dissent, large-scale unrest is rare. Protests broke out in several major cities including Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan.

Understanding the full scope of the protests is difficult as China has a notoriously advanced internet censorship network, making it hard to share videos of unrest online or organize dissent.

Nevertheless, evidence of the protests has broken through, and made its way to the international stage. On Monday, the Biden administration expressed support for peaceful protests but the White House was careful not to tread too far as President Joe Biden tries to ease tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The protests form the largest-scale public expression of anger and resentment with China's government since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests which prompted a violent response from China's military and killed thousands.

What is China's 'zero COVID' policy?

China's “zero COVID policy” – the country's multi-pronged approach to stemming the spread of the disease – has been in effect for nearly three years. While other countries have relaxed restrictions, the Chinese government is adamant that the strict policies are necessary to save lives and keep another coronavirus wave at bay.

Since the original outbreak in Wuhan, leader Xi Jinping has overseen a campaign of mass testing, social distancing, quarantines and travel restrictions. Citizens even have a mandatory app on their phone complete with facial recognition that displays a color code indicating, based on contagion risk, whether they are free to enter public spaces like shopping malls, subways, and cafes.

While the policy was originally quite popular, helping to tamp down the spread of COVID while other countries battled wave after wave, over time citizens have grown weary of the strict rules. That bubbled over into unrest this past week.

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Why are protesters in China holding up white paper?

Many protesters have been holding up blank pieces of paper, meant to symbolize the intense censorship faced by those in the country, particularly the restrictions on political speech.

The papers are intended to underscore the fact that most dissent has been wiped from public discourse. The “white paper revolution” as it is referred to by some, is also a nod to a form of dissent seen during protests in Hong Kong in recent years, USA Today's Kim Hjelmgaard and Michael Collins write.

Is protesting illegal in China?

Large-scale protest, while not illegal, is incredibly rare in China where expressing political dissent or engaging in organized anti-government action is often met with arrest.

Earlier in the week thousands of police were dispatched to prevent further unrest and online the state is working quickly to censor video content showing the size of the gatherings and calls for further protests.

"The Chinese government is extremely capable (of cracking down on dissent)," a Chinese dissident artist who now lives in Australia told USA Today.

Why is China still on lockdown?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, China has had a strict lockdown policy. Dubbed “zero COVID,” the government’s approach was aimed at keeping cases low by implementing stringent procedures that limit exposure.

Over time, while other countries have abandoned large-scale prevention measures, China has kept theirs in place, locking down cities with even just a few cases.

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How long has China been on lockdown?

The entire country is not 'on lockdown,' but China's government does impose restrictions on cities that experience a rise in cases, a practice no longer pursued by many other nations around the world.

In Urumqi, where an apartment fire killed 10, sparking the most recent protests, a 100-day lockdown was in effect as part of the country's "zero-Covid Policy"

Is China on lockdown because of COVID?

Yes. The whole country is not 'on lockdown' but various cities periodically enter lockdown in accordance with the nation's COVID policy.

The protests have largely grown out of a built-up frustration over strict coronavirus guidelines which are no longer in effect to the same degree most anywhere in the world.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What caused protests in China? An apartment fire sparks broader unrest