Thousands of people have taken to the streets in China, chanting slogans and holding pieces of white paper. Why are people protesting? What has caused the anger? And what is going to happen next? Let’s discuss these questions while practicing some useful English vocabulary!

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Vocabulary List

To demonstrate (v) – to make a public expression that you are not satisfied about something, especially by marching or having a meeting

Thousands of people gathered to demonstrate against the new proposals.

Lockdown (n) – a period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely, because of a dangerous disease

The government has been attempting to eliminate the virus by imposing a lockdown

To crush (v) – to defeat someone completely

The government crushed the protests last week

To embrace (v) – to accept something enthusiastically

I embraced the opportunity he gave me

At the expense of (idiom) – If you do one thing at the expense of another, doing the first thing harms the second thing

The company prioritised speed at the expense of safety

To trigger (v) – to cause something to start

An incident of police violence triggered protests across the country

To censor (v) – to remove parts of something, such as a book, movie, or letter, that you do not want someone to see or hear

They censored the movie before releasing it in China

Underlying (adj) – real but not immediately obvious

We need to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and suffering



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Protests Across China

In cities across China, demonstrators have gathered to protest against China’s strict coronavirus pandemic rules. From Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong, people gathered to demonstrate their anger and frustration with years of lockdowns, mass COVID testing, and restrictions.

In some places protests remained peaceful – people holding candles, posters, and blank pieces of paper walking through the streets. In other places, protests became more violent. In Wuhan, barriers set up during the pandemic were pushed over and in Shanghai demonstrators clashed with the police.

Large scale protests are incredibly rare in China. The government strictly control the actions of Chinese people, arresting its enemies and restricting their freedoms. Famously, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were crushed with extreme violence – and people today cannot discuss these events freely.

Today, I want to discuss these protests in a little more detail. I’ll look at the context and reasons behind the protests. Then I’ll discuss some of the key features of the current demonstrations. And finally, I’ll talk about what China’s reaction to these protests will be!

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China Protests: Background and Context


To understand the protests that have broken out across China, you need to understand China’s approach to COVID-19. Since the pandemic began in Wuhan in late 2019, China has followed a “Zero COVID” strategy to counter infections. But what exactly is “Zero-COVID”?

In early 2020, as the rest of the world was struggling to contain the spread of the new pandemic COVID-19, China was celebrating. An incredibly strict lockdown, combined with restrictions on people’s ability to leave their homes, and an almost complete closing of the countries borders, had successfully defeated the first wave of the pandemic.

The idea of a “Zero-COVID” strategy is simple – if we try our hardest to prevent COVID transmission and stop any cases as soon as they appear, our country will be safe.

China fully embraced this strategy. The borders have remained almost completely closed since December 2019. Lockdowns have been some of the most strict and severe in the entire world – the Shanghai lockdown from earlier this year lasted for months. Under lockdowns people are often completely prevented from leaving their houses and sometimes even locked into their buildings. Lockdowns can also be declared instantly and without any notice: a few months ago, people were stuck for days at Disneyland due to a COVID lockdown.

Across the country, mass COVID testing has become normal. I’ve heard stories from friends of mine that COVID tests are required to use public transport and take trains to work. An old student of mine told me that she needed to get some headache medication from a drug store but wasn’t able to enter the store as her COVID test was taken four days earlier.

This approach to COVID control has been at the expense of other ways of managing the pandemic. Unlike other countries, China has not focused on a national vaccination attempt. China’s vaccines – Sinovac and Sinopharm – are not particuarly good. They have not developed any MRNA vaccines (like the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines) and have not approved any of the more effective vaccines for use in China.

While other countries have been able to gradually reopen borders and return to almost normal lives, China has not attempted this. In fact, the Chinese government has spent a lot of resources trying to convince the normal public that the Chinese approach to COVID is the best.

For example, during the World Cup in Qatar, China began to edit footage of the crowds on TV. Why? Well, the thousands of fans in Qatar are not wearing masks… and there hasn’t been a major life threatening COVID outbreak. This undermines China’s message that “Zero-COVID” is the only way to combat the pandemic!


The Trigger: Urumqi Fire

Anger and dissatisfaction have been growing in China for months. People have been cut off from family; the Chinese economy has been hurt; people have lost jobs; and daily life can be difficult to manage in some areas.

There have also been a number of incidents that have triggered anger and protest. In September, a bus carrying passengers to a quarantine centre crashed and 27 people died – more people died in that quarantine bus crash than had died in the entire province since the beginning of the pandemic. A riot broke out in October at an Apple iPhone factory, partly due to anger at Covid. And China is now battling record infection numbers.

The trigger to the current outbreak of protests was an incident in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province. You may have heard of Xinjiang before as it is home to the Uyghur people. Well, Xinjiang has been under pandemic lockdown for over 100 days.

At the end of November, a building fire in Urumqi killed at least 10 people. COVID restrictions were quickly blamed for the people’s deaths – especially after local officials blamed the building residents for the deaths.

Although denied by local officials, rumours online suggested that the building’s doors and fire exits had been locked to stop people leaving and breaking pandemic rules. This made it impossible for residents to quickly leave. And emergency services were late to attend the incident, only arriving after people were already dead.

Gatherings to mourn and remember the dead turned into protests against the local government and China’s “Zero-COVID” approach. Crowds gathered in Urumqi, singing the national anthem and chanting slogans.

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The Protests

Quickly, protests spread out across China – in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, and universities across the country people gathered to demonstrate their anger at the pandemic restrictions.

What are the white pieces of paper?

One of the symbols of the protests in China is blank pieces of white paper. China does not have free speech. Officials try to control what is said and censor anything they consider dangerous or anti-government. Discussing protests online or openly criticising the government could lead to social media accounts being suspended and even people being arrested.

The white paper held by protestors represents this. They are not able to say what they want: they can’t criticise the government or call for Xi Jinping to resign (although some protestors in Shanghai did do this). The white paper represents everything they want to say but are afraid to say!


Are these protests significant?

The protests in China are the first largescale protests in the country for many years, and for that reason I think they are quite significant. Months, maybe years of anger and worries about COVID, the economy, health, and more has finally been revealed.

It is also significant because the protests are not just about COVID regulations, but also China’s censorship and lack of free speech. People are angry that they cannot discuss protests online and it is difficult to learn information using China’s version of the internet.

And the protests are being led by young people across the country who want change. China’s current university students were brought up in a country with incredible economic growth and countless opportunities for graduates. But today, unemployment is high in major cities – COVID, President Xi’s attempts to control technology companies, and high competition are to blame.

These young people will continue to be a frustrated group under the economic conditions.

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What next for China?

While these protests will likely end or die out soon, China will need to deal with the underlying problems that caused the anger.

China will have to seriously think about its COVID policy. Is “Zero-COVID” the best strategy? It was very successful in 2020, but right now China has the highest COVID rate in the world. Is “zero-COVID” still effective? Is it worth locking people in their houses and damaging the economy?

The lack of vaccinations and immunity to the virus in China is an issue. As I mentioned earlier, China’s vaccines are not particularly effective and quite a low number of people in China have been vaccinated. The government has not focused on improving healthcare and immunising the population.

If China decided to end “zero-COVID”, there are real fears that it could cause a major and deadly health crisis in the country. But China does need a plan on how to eventually end the lockdowns and restrictions

And how about the protestors? What will happen to them? It is still unclear, but for the people at the front of the protests the consequences could be harsh – jail terms and fines are likely.

But whether China will make any serious reforms – to government or COVID policy – is too early to say. All we know is that without changes, people will stay angry.


Final Thought

Today I wanted to talk a little about the protests in China. While I couldn’t go into too much detail, I hope that you all understand a little more about why people are protesting on the streets.

Harsh COVID restrictions, lockdowns, and limited rights have left young Chinese people annoyed, frustrated, and angry. The result has been protests across the country, giving Xi Jinping a major challenge.

What will China do? Well, in my opinion, they need to make a plan on how to end the “zero-Covid” approach and share this with people. It is the uncertainty around the policy that is causing so much discontent. But will China do this? I’m not sure!

What do you think? Does your country still have COVID restrictions? Do you think the “zero-COVID” strategy is a good strategy? What would you do if you were in the Chinese government?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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