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Updated Nov 27, 2023, 2:09pm EST
politicsEast Asia
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Semafor Signals

What’s changed a year after China’s massive zero-COVID protests

Reuters/Thomas Peter
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One year ago, China saw its largest protest movement since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

After a deadly apartment fire in Xinjiang that was widely blamed on the country’s stringent zero-COVID rules, thousands of protesters — led mostly by students and women — took to the streets in China to demonstrate against Beijing’s relentless COVID restrictions and lockdowns that had left many without access to basic supplies.

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The “white paper” movement — named after the protest tactic of holding up blank sheets of paper to represent a lack of freedom of expression under the Chinese government — were quashed by authorities, leading to several arrests. But the movement’s impact continues to reverberate both in China and across the world.

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SIGNALS

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The protests appeared to be a catalyst for change, with the government ending its zero-COVID policy earlier than expected in December 2022, despite state media pushing back against the lifting of lockdowns just a month before, writes China watcher Wang Xiangwei. Even though Chinese leaders would never admit to succumbing to protesters’ pressure, another indication of their impact was reflected in Beijing’s post-lockdown unpreparedness. The government’s failure to stockpile basic fever medication before abruptly ending the lockdowns is “evidence that, until last November, it had not been planning to change its policy,” one Chinese student protester told the Economist.

Beijing’s aggressive clampdown on student protesters and their families led many to leave China and join a growing overseas activist movement broadly calling for democratic reform by mobilizing in cities across the world. However, some overseas activists told Radio Free Asia that they still face the threat of violence and harassment, both from Beijing’s “long-arm” law enforcement targeting students abroad, as well as from China’s “Little Pink” — a term used to describe young Chinese cyber-nationalists. Despite ongoing concerns of intimidation, one protester described the Chinese overseas resistance movement as a “‘kind of fire’ that spreads like the seeds of a dandelion, both around the world, and back into China from overseas.”

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