After the Chinese government announced this week that it would retreat from its harsh Covid policies, many Chinese expressed their gratitude to the protesters who had boldly spoken out against the punishing restrictions. After three long years, people throughout China could try to get back to normal life.
“Thank you, brave young people” was a widely shared comment on Chinese social media platforms. Some people posted Time magazine’s new “Heroes of the Year” cover, honoring Iranian women, and compared China’s protesters to them: “Salute the brave women of Iran. Salute the brave young people.”
But many of those who protested last month were reluctant to celebrate, because they want more: They want the government to concede that “zero Covid” was a grave mistake. They’re still filled with anger, frustration and sadness. Newly empowered by activism, they want to keep fighting for their rights and to hold their government accountable.
They are gratified that the Chinese public is being freed from the constant tests, quarantines and lockdowns that have become fixtures of their lives. Yet they’re angry that the government hasn’t apologized, and probably never will, for its misstep — one that caused much unnecessary death and hardship.
They know their destinies are still subject to the will of one person, the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping. They’re worried that China’s lack of proper preparation for eased restrictions will leave the public once again suffering the consequences of bad governance.
Miranda, a journalist who protested in Shanghai, said her biggest takeaway from three years of “zero Covid” was that people can die when a country takes a wrong turn. “That cost is too high,” she said.
Another protester, Tung, a college student in the eastern city of Nanjing, invoked the memory of the doctor who was silenced in 2020 after trying to warn China about the coronavirus. He later died of the virus.
“Dr. Li Wenliang won’t be able to come back,” she said. “Nor will many people who lost their lives under the overzealous pandemic control policies. Or the dignity that was denied and trampled upon. Or the normal campus life of our college years.”
Calling herself and her fellow protesters “people of destiny,” she said, “I will keep fighting.”
It’s hard to tell to what extent the November protests — the most political and widespread since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations — played a role in the government’s decision to lift the restrictions sooner than most people had expected. The economy had been tanking for a while. There had been many confrontations between local authorities and residents.
Understand the Protests in China
But the reason Beijing acted when it did was obvious to many who took part in the demonstrations, as well as some who did not: The protests broke open a crack in an oppressive darkness, letting in light and hope.
“Because of the protesters, I’m full of hope for China’s future,” said Tate, who has been a high school teacher for more than three decades in the southern city of Shenzhen. Ye Qing, a legal scholar in Beijing, wrote on Twitter about a Nov. 27 protest in Shanghai: “This is when the people restarted this country. Time may have finally started.”
The protesters I have talked to are sober about their role, and about the future.
But they are now even more motivated to take their destiny into their own hands. They realize that because they cannot vote, the government is free to impose more policies like “zero Covid,” just as it caused disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
They know they’re confronting the most powerful authoritarian government on the planet and the most iron-fisted Chinese leader in decades. Their recent protests certainly had no impact on the power structure in Beijing.
But they broke the myth that it’s beyond challenge. Overnight, many Chinese, especially the young protesters, realized that Mr. Xi isn’t God and his grip on power isn’t unbreakable, several Chinese scholars told me.
I have been talking to the protesters almost every day, and I’ve heard this sentiment over and over: “One person shouldn’t have so much power.”
Three of them were detained by the police for 24 hours, and another was called in for questioning. A fifth person I spoke to was harassed repeatedly by her student counselor, who even called her parents. The others are lying low.
All of them said they wouldn’t hesitate to take to the streets in the future or get involved in other forms of protest, such as using the iPhone’s Airdrop feature to share slogans with subway riders — or writing them out as graffiti on public toilets.
All the people I interviewed asked me to use no more than their first name, family name, nickname or English name to protect their safety.
One of the protesters who were detained said her blood had been drawn, her irises scanned and her phone taken away. She was ordered to take all her clothes off for a body cavity search. The experience left her fearful. Still, she shared her experience on my Chinese podcast, so others would know what to expect.
She said she hadn’t been political in the past. But that changed after censors deleted eight of her accounts on the Weibo platform because she had posted, or reposted, about tragic social events, many of which involved women.
People protested for different reasons, she said. For her, it was about freedom of speech; for some others, it was a cry to be free of censorship, to watch the movies they wanted. But they share a goal: They want a new government.
The future of the movement that these protesters hope they have started lies in two things: their organization and the public’s support.
They won over some middle-aged people, who experienced their own political awakenings. A few of them have reached out to me to express their gratitude to protesters.
The protesters know that it’s nearly impossible to compete with a government that has the most technologically sophisticated propaganda apparatus in human history.
Miranda, the journalist, said she planned to spend more time talking to her friends, trying to win them over. The next time protesters make their voices heard, she said, they will have more supporters on their side.
One evening last month, Atong, another student in Nanjing, went out by himself to post handwritten protest signs, because he didn’t trust anyone enough to ask them to come along, and because two people would have been more conspicuous. Now he is one of 80 students from his university in an encrypted chat group, who call themselves “rebels” and are exchanging ideas about what to do next.
He pointed to a few recent rallies at universities, at which students successfully negotiated changes in Covid policies with their administrators. That would have been unimaginable a few weeks earlier, he said.
But, I asked the demonstrators, what if this quiet resistance fizzles out? What if years pass and nothing changes?
Most said they were ready to stay at it. A recent college graduate, Xia, said she had witnessed the government cracking down on the rights of L.G.B.T.Q. people like her in recent years. She felt she had to fight back.
“It could take us five to 10 years or even more,” she said. “For many of us, we would be satisfied if we could see a free and democratic China in our lifetime.”