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HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Imagesa Getty Images A man is arrested while people gathering on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi.

Opinion China's zero-covid policy tightens its perfect dictatorship

Human rights lawyer and professor Teng Biao looks at the recent protests in China and asks if it’s the beginning of a new wave of resistance.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 5th 2022, 10:00 PM

A REVOLUTION WAS, perhaps still is, happening in a place where demonstrations are highly unlikely: China.

Many people were holding blank pieces of white paper in their hands, protesting against the insane zero-Covid policy, and in Shanghai, chanting for Xi Jinping to step down.

This display has not been seen in China since 1989, when millions of students, workers and civilians participated in the democratic movement tragically crushed by the Tiananmen Massacre.

south-korea-china-protest Ahn Young-joon Demonstrators stage a rally denouncing the Chinese governnent's zero covid policy. Ahn Young-joon

These protests have shocked most people in China and the outside world. At least 400 million people in hundreds of cities, are under Covid lockdown. There are also at least half a billion surveillance cameras installed and the social credit system is expanding rapidly, with powerful phone trackers connecting one’s digital footprint, real-life identity and physical whereabouts. Facial, voiceprint and gait recognition together with government-controlled big data make privacy hardly possible now in China.

Virtual reality (VR) was used to test party members’ level of loyalty to the CCP. The Chinese government’s goal is to maximise its capacity to monitor everyone’s every movement in every corner at every moment. I once coined the term “high-tech totalitarianism” to describe this surreal dystopia.

Covid control

Furthermore, Covid-19 has become a perfect excuse for the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its control of Chinese society. Every citizen is required to show a green Health Code (and also Venue Code and Itinerary Code) to leave home.

In June, before two human rights lawyers departed to meet their client, a citizen journalist sentenced to four years for her reports of the outbreak of Covid-19, their health code suddenly turned red, which was considered a manipulation by the authorities to restrict their travel. This has happened to thousands of petitioners in Henan Province, as well.

The purpose of the zero-Covid policy is to tighten China’s perfect dictatorship, “controlocracy” as the Norwegian sociologist Stein Ringen put it than to fight the coronavirus.

Ridiculously enough, the collateral damage has been much greater than the pandemic. Whistleblowers and activists have been arrested and silenced, doors and windows were sealed, patients in urgent medical need have been denied by hospitals, people locked in their own homes have been left with a lack of food (some even starved to death), students were not allowed to attend exams and farmers were forced not to plant or harvest. The “white guards” have arbitrarily humiliated, detained and assaulted civilians. Uyghurs have also died as a result of poisoning from disinfectants sprayed in their homes – the list goes on.

china-beijing-xi-jinping-laos-thongloun-talks-cn Xinhua News Agency / PA Images BEIJING, Nov. 30, 2022 (Xinhua) -- Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Chinese president, holds talks with Thongloun Sisoulith, general secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee and Lao president, at the Great Hall of the People. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

The fire that killed dozens of Uyghurs in Urumchi sparked this wave of protests. Still, people’s frustration and anger have accumulated for three years since the coronavirus outbreak and ten years since Xi Jinping came to power. What infuriated people is not only the endless lockdown but also the arbitrariness, absurdity, atrocities and corruption in the name of dealing with Covid.

‘Collective suffering’

Almost everyone in China has suffered under the zero-Covid policy, and this collective suffering is the widespread and powerful psychological basis of the A4 Revolution. A protester wrote, “Everything the Communists fear has been written on the blank papers. People in China can easily understand what a sheet of A4 paper means – it represents hundreds of millions of people’s anger, sorrow, empathy, humiliation, and despair.”

Yet hope rises from the seemingly hopeless situation. When the home becomes one’s prison, there may be little difference between going to jail and going home. More and more people have overcome their fear and stood up to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy and brutal dictatorship. As a popular post on social media said, “I was not on Guizhou’s Quarantine bus, I was not in the locked building burned in Urumchi, but next victim may be me myself.”

More and more overseas Chinese have overcome their fear, too. One and a half months ago, the lone warrior Peng Lifa (aka Peng Zaizhou) became “the new Tankman” when he hung up Anti-Xi banners in Beijing. On more than 350 campuses worldwide, anonymous Chinese students copied his manifestos. But after this wave of protests, countless Chinese students participated in the vigils mourning the victims, supporting the protestors in China, and chanting anti-CCP slogans.

Tiananmen Massacre AP / PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES 1989 photo of a Chinese man as he stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square. The new A4 Revolution is inspired by this. AP / PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES / PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES

One Princeton University student said, “As a Chinese citizen, we all know very well that our lives, our well-being, those we care about, and our entire career can be destroyed in a minute by the regime. But I feel like if I missed this chance to speak, I would regret it for the rest of my life.” It’s extremely rare for overseas students and broader Chinese people to attend anti-CCP events, not to mention organise them publicly.

A modern movement

After the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, in an atmosphere of fear and despair, the majority of Chinese people leaned towards admiring and supporting those with power and money. Increasingly indifferent to universal values and morality, people forgot, marginalised and mocked freedom fighters and prisoners of conscience. Then, Xi increasingly incited nationalist sentiments and aggressiveness on the international stage.

But the sparks of hope have always been shining in the darkness: when the Tank Man stood in front of the tanks in 1989, when Liu Xiaobo initiated the Charter 08, when Xu Zhiyong demanded Xi’s resignation, when Hongkongers occupied the Legislative Council and when Uyghur camp survivors testified in media. And most recently, when Peng Lifa walked onto the Sitong bridge and now when so many heroes in China have held up a blank sheet of paper.

Thomas Jefferson said that “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty.” For at least a few days, the power of conscience and civil disobedience defeated high-tech totalitarianism in China.

The desire for human dignity is unstoppable, and courage is contagious. The A4 Revolution might be crushed for now, but the courage, solidarity and powerful voice for freedom and democracy will enlighten people, inspire activism, and eventually overthrow this giant regime that is based on violence and fear.

A recent example of its rule by violence and fear, is many jailed protestors have been tortured. The CCP seems invincible, but to many protestors and witnesses, it can become just a paper tiger when awakened people decide to take collective action. To some, the CCP seems invincible, but to many protestors and witnesses, it can become just a paper tiger when awakened people decide to take collective action. 

 Teng Biao is Pozen Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago and a human rights lawyer. 


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