The Chinese express their thirst for freedom

On a sheet, in A4 format, an equation in ballpoint pen. That of Friedmann in this case. It is not so much the question of general relativity that is posed but rather that of being fed up. And from the oral distortion of the name of the Russian physicist: « free man », the free man in English. The equation is brandished at the heart of the prestigious Tsinghua University (Beijing), considered the crucible of future national elites. The students, like hundreds of people across China, are taking part in the movement for the easing of restrictive measures linked to the « zero Covid » strategy.

An unprecedented movement since 1989

If the protest movements are not rare, it is this time their simultaneity that strikes, the youth of the demonstrators and the emergence of slogans questioning President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

From Shanghai via Wuhan, the population is expressing its weariness with strict confinements – a case in a residence can lead to the confinement of all the inhabitants – and the ubiquitous rules of repeated tests with queues that stretch over hundreds of meters or more. Tired of these measures that refer to the social control of populations.

“It’s a movement that hasn’t been seen since 1989 (date of the Tiananmen Square uprising, editor’s note). Protests seem spontaneous even though social media posts call for people to come together”, explains Franck Pajot, a teacher at the French school in Beijing for fifteen years. Trade unionist and elected adviser to French people abroad, he has not been able to return to France for three years due to health measures.

Connected world obliges, the maintenance of order has evolved since Tian’anmen. If strong arrests took place in Shanghai where the police used, Saturday, November 26, pepper gas to apprehend 300 people gathered at Middle Urumqi Road. They paid tribute to the ten dead in Ürümqi (Xinjiang), the previous Thursday, in the fire of a residential building. A drama at the origin of national demonstrations against strict confinements.

The images of the World Cup in Qatar have also produced their effect and fueled resentment over the strict measures decreed in China for almost three years. “Even if people think that the Zero Covid policy is effective and necessary, they have seen the whole world without a mask in the stadiums, circulating normally”observes Franck Pajot.

In Shijiazhuang (Hebei), for two weeks, no need to present negative tests to take transport or go to a business. As a result, residents have self-confined to their homes. The reaction testifies to a still-living fear of the epidemic. Especially since the lifting of restrictions in places gave rise to an epidemic outbreak and 40,000 new cases on November 26. A drop on the scale of China, but the under-vaccination of the elderly and the ineffectiveness of national vaccines forces the authorities to be cautious.

Many arrests at home or at work

On the banks of the Liangmahe River, which crosses the center of Beijing, significant deployments of police have been observed, with continuous reinforcements over the hours, without the repression however degenerating as is the case in Iran. “There were attempts at arrests but the crowd movements protected the leaders”abounds Franck Pajot.

According to several testimonies, in Beijing, the police are for the time being arranged in a cordon but very calm and no riot squad has been deployed. Many arrests, on the other hand, took place after the fact at the home or at the workplace of the demonstrators, recognized thanks to surveillance cameras or images broadcast on social networks. A real but discreet repression, therefore.

The ban on demonstrations and the risk of life imprisonment attest to the courage of the protesters. “In the gatherings, the atmosphere is charged with emotion. There are long episodes of silence until a protester starts shouting a slogan hostile to power, to Covid tests or in favor of freedom”, finally notes Franck Pajot. For the time being, direct criticism of the central power and of Xi Jinping remains sporadic. It is mainly the local governments that are implicated.

The demonstrations from the middle classes of large megacities as well as migrant workers from the countryside (mingongs), from the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, the main iPhone assembler in China, show that anger transcends social classes. “It is undoubtedly a new fact”notes sociologist Jean-Louis Rocca, professor at Sciences Po and researcher at CERI.

At Foxconn, the payment of salary arrears crystallized the movement. In some provinces, teachers and bus drivers are also demanding their pay. A point that attests to the financial difficulties of certain provinces. « Zero Covid crystallizes a pre-existing fed up: daily tests, the containment policy make everyday life unbearable », confirms Jean-Louis Rocca. The sinologist thus invites not to draw plans on the comet as for the challenge of power. According to him, « the demand for free expression should not lead to the conclusion that the population is demanding another political system ».

Differences in the application of the « zero Covid » strategy depending on the province

If the 20e Congress of the CPC, mid-October, could suggest a political apparatus under the full control of Xi Jinping, the reality seems more contrasted. This is evidenced by the differences in the application of the “zero Covid” strategy depending on the province. “There is a wavering at the national level”, observes Jean-Louis Rocca. The current movement would be, for the researcher, revealing of a deeper malaise and of the « undermining the model of constitution of a vast middle class ». Thanks to the economic slowdown, young people are questioning the values ​​inherited from previous generations who have sweat blood and water to get out of their condition. Until then, a pact with the authorities had prevailed: political stability against social advancement.

Today, two to three strikes break out daily in the territory, which testifies to social tensions linked to economic redistribution. “The Chinese people’s attachment to stability is an ancient value. There is a strong conservatism and, even the most critical of the party, know that obviously the fall of power would lead to internal struggles that would border on chaos and terrible conflicts between regions., concludes Jean-Louis Rocca. An equation never solved by Friedmann.


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