In central China, students chanted demands for more transparency about Covid rules, while avoiding the bold slogans that riled the Communist Party a week earlier. In Shanghai, residents successfully negotiated with the local authorities to stop a lockdown of their neighborhood. And despite pressure from officials, a team of volunteer lawyers across China, committed to defending the right of citizens to voice their views, fielded anxious calls from protesters.
The recent wave of demonstrations that washed over China was prompted by frustration about pandemic restrictions, but the unrest also sometimes resulted in calls for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to resign. Since then, the police have been out in force to prevent a resurgence, and the mass protests have subsided. In the aftermath, a low-key hum of resistance against the authorities has persisted, suggesting that the big rallies emboldened a small but significant number of people, including students, professionals and blue-collar workers.
None of those local acts amount to a major challenge to Mr. Xi and the Communist Party. But they suggest that residents are less afraid of challenging officialdom, albeit in more measured, tactical ways. They often invoke China’s own laws and policy pledges, an approach that is less likely to draw the wrath of Communist Party leaders.
“There are people yelling out demands that are also my own, and I’m extremely grateful — grateful that they were able to speak out 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 give free advice by phone to people in Shanghai and elsewhere worried about repercussions from taking part in vigils and protests.
“I’m sure that the number of people who expressed themselves this time, especially the youth, will later shape some policy changes,” she said. “I’m sure that the decision makers are not a monolithic lump of iron.”
In late November, dozens of protests broke out across China, ignited by fury over a deadly fire in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region in the west. The result was the boldest and most widespread demonstrations in China since the pro-democracy movement of 1989.
The Urumqi government had firmly 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 grief turned into wider anger at pervasive lockdowns, virus testing and limits on travel. At demonstrations in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, some protesters called for Mr. Xi and the Communist Party to give up power.
Since then, the Chinese government has taken a two-pronged approach: detaining some protesters and warning would-be protesters, and letting local governments abandon some of the Covid rules that have frustrated the population. Mr. Xi has not spoken publicly about the protests, and it is unclear how far the displays of dissent played into his decision to adjust policy. But plenty of Chinese people seem to believe that the nationwide defiance played a big role. They may now try to keep up pressure in smaller ways.
“I think what’s going to happen is people will coordinate, it will be low-level, it will look individualized and spontaneous, but there will be learning and discussion behind the scenes,” said Mary Gallagher, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies politics and social change in China.
Understand the Protests in China
- The Toll of ‘Zero Covid’: The protests come as President Xi Jinping’s harsh pandemic policies have hurt businesses and strangled growth. The Daily looks at what the demonstrations could mean for Mr. Xi.
- A Roar of Discontent: The protests have awoken a tradition of dissent that had seemed spent after 10 years under Mr. Xi. The effects may far outlast the street clashes.
- Tracking Protesters: The authorities in China are using the country’s all-seeing surveillance apparatus to track, intimidate and detain those who marched in the protests.
- Outmatching the Censors: Days after the initial protests, videos of chants and confrontations were visible on the Chinese internet. Experts say the sheer volume of clips likely overwhelmed China’s army of censors.
“That’s what you need to do in a politically repressive environment,” she said. “It’s really going to put pressure on the local governments not to lock down.”
Despite China’s hulking authoritarian government, 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 Mr. Xi’s government at a particularly delicate time as China seeks to ease Covid restrictions while trying to avoid an uncontrolled surge of infections.
Hundreds of students at Wuhan University, in the city where the pandemic first took hold starting in late 2019, rallied on a recent rainy evening 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 mild slogan appeared to be a considered move. A student at the university said that classmates were unhappy about 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 surname, Wu, fearing repercussions, said that 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 and in-person classes, Mr. Wu said.
While some cities in China have begun to ease lockdown restrictions, not all local officials have followed suit. They remain under heavy pressure to contain outbreaks, even as more senior leaders want to appear sympathetic to public impatience.
In a wealthy district of Shanghai on Sunday afternoon, security teams blocked the entry to an apartment complex after a local committee ordered a lockdown upon discovering a Covid case in one building.
Angry residents soon confronted the guards, challenging the closure as unlawful. “You don’t have the right!” one woman is seen yelling repeatedly in a video posted on Twitter. Hours later, the police arrived and backed the residents. A neighborhood committee worker for the apartment complex told The New York Times that the lockdowns were lifted “after engagement and coordination.”
In Wuhan over the weekend, residents in one neighborhood took matters into their own hands, pouring into the street after breaking down barriers that had held them in lockdown, as seen in a video posted on Twitter.
With so much risk from taking part in protests, Chinese residents are using an older tactic: citing the central leaders’ words to push back against 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 tactic — that a well-intentioned ruler in Beijing has been misled by corrupt or disloyal functionaries.
“It’s this idea that you can use the central government’s words against local overreach,” Professor Gallagher said. “And it protects you, because the central government is supposed to be benevolent.”
Chinese are invoking the law to negotiate and push back against persisting pandemic restrictions. In areas that have failed to ease lockdowns, residents have pointed to the government’s move in early November to push for local authorities to take a more targeted approach in controlling Covid.
The local confrontations in Shanghai and Wuhan point to the impatience of residents under lockdown who are more worried about paying mortgages, reviving battered businesses and getting children back to regular school.
“We want to lift the lockdown, our kids need to go to school,” residents of an apartment complex in Wuxi, eastern China, shouted as they resisted a lockdown of their complex, a video posted on Twitter showed. “We need to make 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 the authorities mobilized to detain protesters and search residents’ phones in recent days, often without clear justification, legal advice has circulated on the Chinese internet. One such article outlined citizens’ rights in the event that a police officer demands to search their phones.
In that article, the author, who belongs to a Shanghai law firm, invokes the Chinese Constitution and concludes: “Arbitrary content checks of citizens’ cellphones are a serious infringement of citizens’ privacy and an abuse of public power.”
Some of those who have been speaking out, however, continue to face greater pressures. Ms. Wang, 37, the lawyer who helped coordinate advice for worried protesters and their friends and families, said that she had received phone calls from local officials.
She said that she had decided to help the protesters and their families after seeing images circulate on Chinese social media of the vigil in Shanghai commemorating those killed in Urumqi. She had taken a couple of dozen calls, she said, including from people who had been detained and questioned and who wanted to know their rights.
The Chinese authorities have over the past decade tried to silence rights attorneys by revoking their law licenses or by detaining and imprisoning them. But Ms. Wang said that she felt no reason to worry.
“To my mind, I’m just providing a little bit of legal advice services” to people who took part in protests, she said.
“How is it that if some people believe that they were in the wrong, then I’m also in the wrong simply by providing them legal advice?” she added. “That’s fundamentally against the idea of rule of law.”