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China's continued "zero COVID" policy stirs dissent

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, China is still following a tough "zero-COVID" policy. The results have been mixed. The numbers of cases and deaths are low by global standards, but there's a growing economic toll. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, the policy has sparked something rare in China - political dissent.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Throughout the pandemic, there have been times when frustration and anger have boiled over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling).

RUWITCH: In the city of Guangzhou this month, in southern China, residents broke through temporary COVID barriers and rampaged in the streets. And last spring in Shanghai, patience wore thin during a lockdown that lasted two months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

RUWITCH: For the most part, the unrest has been focused and local. But last month, something different happened when a man in Beijing hung banners over a crowded road. They demanded an end to repressive COVID-19 policies, called for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to be removed from office and told people not to be slaves, but to be citizens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: It was audacious, and it struck a chord with untold numbers of people, including a Chinese undergrad who goes by the nickname Finley. A few days later, she was in a classroom building at the university she attends in Hong Kong.

FINLEY: (Through voice actor) My hands were shaking.

RUWITCH: We're using a voice actor and not revealing Finley's name to protect her identity. She had a small poster she'd secretly printed supporting the bridge protester and a roll of tape.

FINLEY: (Through voice actor) I was petrified that someone would walk by, so I stuck the tape on quickly, posted it on the wall and then turned immediately and hurried away.

RUWITCH: In China, the space for dissent has shrunk markedly under Xi Jinping. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a historian at the University of California, Irvine, who studies Chinese protests. He says that acts of defiance like the bridge demonstration are all the more surprising.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It was a kind of reminder of how even a desire for kind of total control, there are still going to be what Leonard Cohen talked about, the cracks where the light gets in.

RUWITCH: The bridge protests lasted mere minutes, and censors scrubbed images of it from the internet inside China. But it spread, thanks in part to people like another college student we talked to, this time in mainland China. He goes by the name An. And again, we're using a voice actor for his protection.

AN: (Through voice actor) This kind of open protest is so rare in China, and it also took direct aim at Xi Jinping. I felt like crying.

RUWITCH: He says he knew it reflected what many people were thinking but didn't dare to say.

AN: (Through voice actor) I wanted more people to know what had happened.

RUWITCH: So one day at a crowded outdoor spot, he says he changed the name of his iPhone to cover his identity and AirDropped pictures of the bridge protest to every phone it detected around him.

AN: (Through voice actor) When I heard my phone vibrate, I knew I had succeeded.

RUWITCH: Others reportedly used that method, too. Apple has since made it harder to AirDrop files to strangers in China. Still, for some, like Finley, carrying out these small, anonymous copycat protests feels better than doing nothing in the face of what some now call political depression. That's a feeling of impotence in the face of unending COVID restrictions and deepening authoritarianism under Xi Jinping.

FINLEY: (Through voice actor) I did what I could do. I tried my best, and that gives me some comfort. I think it really helps alleviate some of that political depression.

RUWITCH: Wasserstrom says small copycat events in China are daring acts, given the stakes. And he says waves of protests can sometimes start from mundane complaints. But he warns, we should avoid reading too much into them.

WASSERSTROM: And falling into a trap that some analysts fell into at the beginning of the COVID-19 process, when they started thinking about this as potentially the Chinese Communist Party's Chernobyl.

RUWITCH: Right now, he says, it's hard to see what, if anything, the pessimism and protests might add up to.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "FORTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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