Science fiction is becoming science fact as the Chinese Communist Party used sophisticated surveillance technology to crush the anti-Zero Covid protests. The Telegraph has more.
Many of the protesters were understandably oblique. Some held up blank sheets of paper. Others displayed an exclamation mark on a red background – the symbol of a message that can’t be delivered on WeChat, China’s main messaging platform. One woman brought a pair of alpacas, the physical manifestation of an online meme based on the Mandarin for “grass mud horse” – cào nǐ mā – sounding like an insult that urges the subject to perform an unspeakable act on their mother.
But a few brave protesters were more direct. When police told those gathered in Beijing not to complain about lockdown, the crowd deployed sarcasm to demand more frequent Covid tests. Some even dared to chant slogans specifically denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and calling for President Xi Jinping himself to go. They will have done so in the full and certain knowledge that they were being watched and recorded by the state’s hyper-sophisticated surveillance apparatus and in all likelihood had already been identified by the authorities.
The spark for the wave of protests that has swept across China in recent days was a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the far-western province of Xinjiang on November 24 that killed ten people. Many blamed the government’s strict zero Covid policies for hampering the response of fire services in tackling a blaze and adding to the death toll. By last weekend the protests had spread across the country, with thousands gathering in Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi and other major cities.
Protests in China are not quite as rare as one might perhaps assume. Between May this year and November 22nd, before the latest wave of dissent, there were 822 protests around the country, according to China Dissent Monitor, a database run by the US think tank Freedom House. But most have been small-scale, isolated and focused on important but tangential issues such as frustrations around the country’s struggling property sector. The latest protests have been much larger, more widespread and taken aim directly at the heart of the government and its signature policies.
Sam Olsen, the head of the Evenstar Institute, a strategic intelligence and political risk firm focused on China, says that “every dynasty” in Chinese history has been plagued by unrest. The difference with the latest demonstrations is that they have been nationwide and, in common with the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the authorities haven’t been able to keep them under wraps.
They have also simultaneously occurred on the ground and in cyberspace. Reports suggest there have been so many posts about the protests on WeChat that censors have at times been overwhelmed.
The onset of Covid meant that the Chinese population, in common with those in other countries around the world, was initially prepared to tolerate even greater curtailment of their freedoms in order to combat the virus. Drivers still have to scan a code held up by a drone in order to enter cities; once inside everyone must produce their phones at the many checkpoints and display a green QR code.