China’s zero-Covid strategy: causes for public protests - SOAS China Institute

//China’s zero-Covid strategy: causes for public protests

China’s zero-Covid strategy: causes for public protests in Chinese cities and consequences for the world economy

Photo credit: Jida Li (Unsplash)

By Daouda Cissé | 15 December 2022

Recent protests following the death of people in a blaze in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital raise questions about Beijing’s claimed efficacy of China’s zero-Covid strategy three years into the pandemic. According to many, recent lockdowns in Urumqi led to rescue delays to save the lives of people trapped in a building on fire. This sad event under strict lockdown measures combined with stress, anxiety, fear, insecurity, and unsafety among the majority of the population in China has led to protests across the country. Beijing’s continuous repressive and drastic zero-Covid strategy anytime new cases are declared in Chinese cities has contributed to the ire of the population vis-à-vis the Chinese government as families are disrupted, jobs are lost, and social contacts are broken, without forgetting the psychological impacts of lockdown measures to confine people in barricaded districts. 


This piece explores China’s zero-Covid strategy, its causes for recent public protests in major Chinese cities and its consequences for the world economy.

China’s zero-Covid strategy: causes for recent public protests in Chinese cities


For three years now, China has applied strict and draconian measures to counter the spread of the Covid-19 virus in its cities. While in many countries around the world, protests followed at the very beginning of the pandemic with people demonstrating against lockdowns and curfews followed by anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements, in China large protests related to Covid-19 have only started now; and after the death of people, which may be an indirect cause. Since 1989, with the Tiananmen Square event, protests are quasi inexistent in China as they are repressed by the government and its public security bureau. Often times, protests’ leaders are jailed, repressed and at times disappear as no information is known about their whereabouts. While in 2011, villagers in Wukan to protect their land rights organised themselves to protest against local political leaders wanting to use their land, demonstrations in major cities to express one’s disagreement towards political decisions did not occur much for fear of severe repression and disappearances.


It is important to note that while they are spreading to more cities across China, current anti-lockdown protests have political ramifications and indirect consequences as many protesters are calling for the resignation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leaders in power. At the beginning of the protests, a tweet went viral as it was written: “Chinese gathered in large cities and shouted for the resignation of the party.” The account holder expressed disbelief in the call for resignation of the CCP as he/she thought such a call for resignation would not happen for decades to come but it is occurring now; three years into the pandemic with strict Covid-19 lockdown measures. For the first time such a challenge is posed to the Chinese government, as widespread public protest is extremely rare in China. “The wave of civil disobedience is unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago, as frustration mounts over his signature zero-Covid policy nearly three years into the pandemic.” What was supposed to be sympathy protests for the terrible death of people in Xinjiang has turned into the manifestation of public anger against the Chinese government; which led to political protests. While for a decade now, with most of the discontent of Chinese citizens being censored by controlled and monitored social media platforms which erase comments and expressions of discontent against the CCP, for the first time in a decade since Xi Jinping took power, widespread public protests at the national level have occurred. The ramifications of such protests in China have also been seen abroad as many Chinese citizens expressed concerns about the event which occurred with the death of people in Urumqi, showing sympathy, solidarity and support for the protesters as demands for freedom are claimed. Protesters object to the Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns on people’s rights in the name of virus prevention, and the restrictions on individual freedom and people’s livelihoods. The Covid-19 restrictions have come at the cost of putting millions of Chinese under confinement and lockdown which disrupted people’s lives. To some protesters and observers the demonstrations mean the current zero-Covid-19 policy is no longer sustainable.


As protesters are harassed outside of China’s borders, foreign governments have warned about a campaign which tracks dissidents and those who have opposing views to the Chinese government. Online protests via social media platforms have become quasi not possible as under Xi a high-tech social surveillance system has made protest more difficult and riskier.


Even though China’s zero-Covid strategy has led to public protests in major Chinese cities, it also has impacts for the world economy.

Covid-19: China’s isolation and its consequences for the world economy


Economically, the Covid-19 pandemic has also affected the Chinese economy, production, mobility of goods and people and has had consequences for the world economy with the disruption of supply chains and ripple effects on consumption, food shortages and global rising prices of products. Recent protests against drastic lockdown measures contribute to roiling global markets and making oil prices lower. The use of several measures to counter the spread of the virus has ripple effects on China’s economy as many workers lost their jobs and did not receive much support from the government to mitigate the consequences of their unemployment and business bankruptcy. The continuous outbreaks and new waves of cases did not help counter socio-economic crises in China. Corporate and household debts are to increase as the government eyes lending from financial institutions to businesses and people as a solution. Such a short-term socio-economic solution does not contribute to lifting the burden on China’s financial institutions and the long-term consequences related to bank lending and declining credit ratings. China’s zero-Covid approach could worsen the debt situation of the country’s companies, some of which are already in financial distress and closing businesses. China’s zero-Covid strategy exacerbates risks and uncertainties for businesses with further mobility restrictions due to new outbreaks.


New outbreaks with mobility restrictions in China may in the long-term cause important disruptions for manufacturing industries with production shortages for domestic consumption as well as exports. Besides production shortages, new Covid outbreaks slacken and delay shipping from the main Chinese ports that serve global markets; thus contributing to global shortages of products and its effects on increasing prices for production and consumption. New Covid-19 outbreaks in China, which come with drastic measures (reduction of mobility between cities and provinces, confinement, travel restrictions), have brought China’s zero-Covid strategy to test once again.


Recent protests across China even though fueled by the death of people in Urumqi have their main root causes in the consequences of lockdown measures across China. Protests are also economically driven considering the socio-economic consequences of drastic measures on households, companies, businesses production, jobs, financial markets among others in China as well as globally. China’s zero-Covid strategy has always been a test and is now deemed unsustainable by the Chinese leadership. In today’s more than ever integrated global economy, China must not isolate itself but should be an integral part of the world with all the challenges it entails and find solutions to domestic as well as global socio-economic issues. To operate in silo and on the margin of the world economy means a fragmented world system for common solutions to global issues.

Daouda Cissé is a senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS) and an associate of the Megatrends Afrika project. His research focuses on China and China-Africa relations.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.