Tuesday briefing: What’s behind angry protests against China’s ‘deadly’ Covid restrictions

In today’s newsletter: A timeline of increasing dissent as Chinese citizens demand ‘food, not PCR tests’ and blame Xi Jinping’s government for restrictions they say have cost lives

Good morning. After days of escalating protests across China unprecedented since Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago, the state hit back on Monday night. “There was a massive police presence [at the expected protest sites] in Shanghai and Beijing questioning passers-by,” the Guardian’s Helen Davidson, covering the story from Taipei, told me this morning. “They scared people off, which was obviously the intention.” And yet the unrest that has grown over recent days and weeks remains a sign of an extraordinary rupture in China’s political system.

“This isn’t going to lead to a revolution,” Helen said. “But I do think it is a point of no return in the relationship between the general population and the CCP [Chinese Communist party], at least as far as Covid goes. There are frequent protests in China. But people who have been living in China for decades say they haven’t seen anything like this since Tiananmen Square in 1989.”

So what do the protesters want – and how have they expressed their anger at Xi and the government he leads? “People are saying a lot of different things,” said Helen. “The frustration is overwhelmingly about the zero-Covid policy – but there has been an element of extending into talking about democracy.” Today’s newsletter tells the story of how that movement has built and built over the last six weeks – in the protesters’ own words. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Foreign policy | Rishi Sunak has signalled the end of the “golden era” of relations between Britain and China, using his first major foreign policy speech to warn of the creeping authoritarianism of Xi Jinping’s regime. Sunak called China a “systemic challenge to our values and interests”.

  2. Internet safety | Social media platforms that breach pledges to block sexist and racist content could face substantial fines under new changes to the online safety bill. Ofcom will have the power to fine companies up to 10% of global turnover for breaches.

  3. Ukraine | Fighting around the key eastern Ukraine town of Bakhmut has descended into a bloody morass with hundreds of dead and injured reported daily, as neither Russian or Ukrainian forces were able to make a significant breakthrough after months of fighting.

  4. Environment | A report by Unesco and IUCN has concluded that the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s biggest coral reef system, should be placed on a list of world heritage sites that are in danger.

  5. Media | More than 70 media figures, including the editors of the Guardian and the Daily Mail, are calling on the government to back a proposed law to tackle “abusive legal tactics to shut down investigations”. A letter calls for urgent action against the global super-rich’s use of ‘“strategic lawsuits against public participation” (Slapps).

In depth: ‘The spark that lit a prairie fire’

Smoke rises as a banner with a protest message hangs off Sitong Bridge in Beijing on 13 October.
A banner with a protest message hangs off Sitong Bridge in Beijing on 13 October. Photograph: Social Media/Reuters


13 October Sitong Bridge, Beijing

With 36 Chinese cities across 31 provinces under lockdown or other coronavirus controls – a total of about 197 million people – two large banners are unfurled on a flyover in Beijing (above), a rare gesture of public protest that draws widespread attention on social media. One of the banners reads: “We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want respect, not lies. We want reform, not a cultural revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves.”

While posts connected to the incident are swiftly scrubbed from social media platforms, many users discuss the gesture, sometimes under the hashtag “I saw it”, Helen Davidson reports. Many commenters use a revolutionary saying made famous by Mao Zedong: “A single spark can set the prairie ablaze.” The banners are swiftly removed, and police deny anything unusual has happened.


1 November Zhengzhou, Henan province

With restrictions in place for almost a month despite Covid numbers across Henan of around 20-30 daily – and after workers flee from Apple supplier Foxconn’s local plant, where they have been forced to live as well as work to maintain lockdown protocols – residents express their anger at “performative lockdown lifting” for visiting state media. One addressed local authorities: “You end the lockdown when the CCTV supervision team comes, does it mean you will lock us down again as soon as they leave?”


3 November Lanzhou, Gansu province

The father of a three-year-old boy who died from carbon monoxide poisoning gives an interview to Reuters saying that strict Covid policies played a part in his son’s death because he was not allowed out of his community compound to take him to hospital. “There was the Covid situation at the checkpoint. The staff did not act, and then ignored and avoided the problem, and then we were blocked by another checkpoint,” Tuo Shilei said. “No help was provided. This series of events caused the death of my child.”

Residents take to the streets in response to the news and are met with riot police. “Ask your leader to come here and tell us what happened today,” one woman reportedly shouts at officials.

The story of the boy, named Wenxuan, is shared on social media, under the hashtag “Three years of Covid was his entire life”, after a video of him receiving CPR goes viral. “The kid’s memory will sadly be of masks and nothing else,” one Weibo user writes. Tuo is unable to attend Wenxuan’s funeral in his hometown because of fears he would be quarantined on arrival.


15 November Guangzhou, Guangdong province

With 5,000 cases a day in the city of 19 million, speculation is rife that local restrictions could widen. Crowds take to the streets and tear down barricades designed to enforce lockdown rules.

In one video, CNN reports, as the crowd chants “Unseal!”, a man asks government coronavirus workers: “If your parents have gone sick, how would you feel? If your children are suffering from fever and prevented from leaving [for the hospital], how would you feel? Nobody came to explain and the community’s office line is always busy. And our landlord doesn’t care if we live or die. What should we do?”


25 November Urumqi, Xinjiang province

A candlelight memorial for those who died following a fire in a highrise building in Urumqi.
A candlelight memorial for those 10 people who died following a fire in a high-rise building in Urumqi. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

After a fire kills 10 people in a high-rise building, many locals suspect that coronavirus control measures hampered the victims’ ability to escape. The claim is denied by the authorities, but Reuters reports crowds taking to the streets the following day, chanting “End the lockdown!” Videos show a crowd singing the Chinese national anthem, including the line: “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!” In Beijing, residents successfully persuade a local leader to cancel a lockdown, referring to the Urumqi fire in their argument: “That tragedy could have happened to any one of us,” one of the protesters says.


26 November Shanghai; Nanjing, Jiangsu province; Beijing

Anger sparked by the deaths in Urumqi spreads across the country, with calls to ease lockdown restrictions gaining momentum. In Shanghai, where protesters chant for Xi Jinping to step down, local resident James Yu adapts the Mao Zedong phrase, telling the New York Times: “The demonstrations across the country have been like the spark that lit a prairie fire … It feels powerful.”

In a video taken at the Communication University of China in Nanjing, crowds hold their phones aloft, torches on, as a young man who says he is from Xinjiang tells them: “Before I felt I was a coward, but now at this moment I feel I can stand up. I speak for my home region, speak for those friends who lost relatives and kin in the fire disaster. And for the deceased.”

Protesters in Beijing hold up their mobile phones during a protest on 27 November against Covid restrictions.
Protesters in Beijing hold up their mobile phones during a protest on 27 November against Covid restrictions. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Also in Shanghai, the Washington Post reports on a candlelit vigil on a road named after Urumqi, where protesters hold up blank sheets of paper to symbolise their opposition to state censorship. (Helen Sullivan has more about the symbols of the protests here.) A man who photographed the incident says the pages were passed around: “Everyone was holding it. No one said anything, but we all knew what it meant. Delete all you want. You can’t censor what is unsaid.”

A protester – nicknamed “Shanghai flower boy” online for the bouquet in his hand as his speaks – asks: “Those victims, how they died, we are all clear about that. Isn’t that right?” Video shows him quickly being taken away by police.

At Tsinghua University in Beijing, a young woman tells the crowd through a loudspeaker: “If because we are afraid of being arrested, we don’t speak, I believe our people will be disappointed in us. As a Tsinghua student, I will regret this my whole life.”


27 November Shanghai, Beijing

Protests in Shanghai continue, Reuters reports, with hundreds clashing with police in the city. “I’m here because I love my country, but I don’t love my government,” says a protester named Shaun Xiao. “I want to be able to go out freely, but I can’t. Our Covid-19 policy is a game and is not based on science or reality.”

In Beijing, AFP reports, as people yelled “We will not forget!”, one woman, named as Tian, says: “You have to fight for your own future. I’m not scared because we’re not doing anything wrong. We’re not breaking any laws. Everyone’s working hard for a better tomorrow.”


28 November Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan, Guangzhou

At the end of a weekend of intensifying protest across China, protesters in Beijing shout: “This is not normal life, we’ve had enough. Our lives were not like this before!” Students at Tsinghua University hold up signs showing a maths equation named after the physicist Alexander Friedmann, apparently in order to denote the homonym “free man”.

Later, around 1,000 people gather in two groups late Sunday night and early Monday morning. One man holding up a blank piece of paper says: “We’ll always support the Communist party, but we want democracy and freedom.”

In Chengdu, people chant: “Give me liberty or give me death!” And in Shanghai, a crowd applauds as a woman echoes that banner on the bridge six weeks ago: “We want respect, not lies. We want reform, not a cultural revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • From common viruses to pneumonia, cold homes are known to have adverse impacts on physical health. David Robson unpacks how the energy crisis could impact people’s social connections and exacerbate loneliness. Nimo

  • The Homes for Ukraine scheme was slated to last for six months – and for its 144,000 beneficiaries, time is up. Amelia Gentleman has a superb piece on how it’s gone, and the complicated question of what happens next. Archie

  • Following Matt Hancock’s surprisingly good showing on I’m a Celebrity, Zoe Williams looks at why so many are quick to forgive politicians who use TV to launder their terrible reputations. Nimo

  • I heard about something called the Millennial Pause yesterday, which turns out to be a source of some hilarity to certain Gen Zers: the split-second gap people of my age leave in online recordings before they speak to check its working. This August piece by Kate Lindsay in the Atlantic filled me in on all the mortifying details. Still, at least I learned about it via a WhatsApp group. Suck on that, boomers! Archie

  • Wilfred Chan visited one of the few areas where the GOP made unexpected gains in the US midterm elections: immigrant enclaves in Brooklyn. Chan spoke to residents, councillors and political volunteers about the rising conservatism there and why some immigrant groups feel left behind by the Democratic party. Nimo

World Cup

Bruno Fernandes of Portugal celebrates after scoring their team's second goal against Uruguay.
Bruno Fernandes of Portugal celebrates after scoring their team's second goal against Uruguay. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Monday’s fixtures started with a thrilling and chaotic draw between Cameroon and Serbia, which ended 3-3 after Cameroon took the lead and then fell 3-1 behind. The highlight was an audacious lob from Vincent Aboubakar. Then South Korea and Ghana played out a similarly dramatic match, with Ghana prevailing 3-2 after South Korea had come back from 2-0 down. A stunning late goal from Casemiro took Brazil to a 1-0 victory over Switzerland and secured a place in the last 16, while Portugal also qualified for the next round after a double from Bruno Fernandes (above) ensured a 2-0 victory over Uruguay. That match featured a pitch invader holding a rainbow flag and wearing a shirt saying “Respect for Iranian women”.

Meanwhile, ahead of tonight’s Group B fixture between England and Wales, Gareth Southgate promised that his side would “match the spirit [of Wales] and display the quality with the ball that allows us to be ruthless”, while Gareth Bale promised Wales would “give everything we can to try to qualify” and added: “the dragon on my shirt; that’s all I need”.

Barney Ronay writes that the most notable aspect of Gianni Infantino’s World Cup since his remarkable outburst at the start of the tournament is that he has gone into “stealth mode”, and adds: “Infantino sits on top of this bonfire of greed, vanity and despotic power like a boggle-eyed Guy Fawkes mannequin”. And if you’ve wondered about the intensity of the Qatar side’s support, do read this fascinating New York Times piece about the Lebanese ultras who signed up to cheer them on.


For all the latest on Qatar, from the scandal to the scores, sign up to Football Daily – our free, sometimes funny, newsletter.

Other sport

Football | The entire board of Juventus, including president Andrea Agnelli, have announced their resignations. It comes after Juventus’s financial statements underwent scrutiny by prosecutors in recent months for alleged false accounting and market manipulation. The company has denied any wrongdoing.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 29 November 2022

“Sunak warning over China as Xi continues crackdown on protest” – that’s the Guardian print edition’s lead story this Tuesday morning. The online safety bill is also on our front page, and it’s the splash in Telegraph: “Social media fines for child accounts” (the paper says it campaigned to have “age curbs” on users enforced). The Times has “Social media firms told to protect young or pay price”. “Russia’s shame” – the Metro says Putin’s soldiers, according to Ukraine’s first lady, have orders “from the top” to rape civilians. “Tory rebellion on wind farms new threat to PM’s authority” – that’s the i on Rishi Sunak’s possible U-turn to allow them on land. “Keir’s class war threat to 200 private schools” – the Daily Mail leads on the possibility of VAT on fees for the second day running. “Do Or Dai” – the Sun previews England v Wales at the World Cup. Likewise the Daily Mirror: “Battle of Britain … Pride and passion”. The Daily Express slaps an ‘exclusive’ tag on this one: “NHS pays out millions to treat patients abroad”. The top story in the Financial Times is “Lagarde says ECB ‘not done’ raising rates despite signs of easing inflation”.

Today in Focus

Sam Bankman-Fried’s penthouse – ‘the Orchid’, located in Albany, an exclusive private community in Nassau.
Sam Bankman-Fried’s penthouse – ‘the Orchid’, located in Albany, an exclusive private community in Nassau. Photograph: TWITTER/FTX/REUTERS

The crypto-collapse: inside the crazy world of FTX

The cryptocurrency exchange FTX collapsed earlier this month, leaving billions of dollars unaccounted for. Alex Hern explores what happened and where the money went

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings on Matt Hancock’s return from I’m a Celebrity – cartoon
Ben Jennings’ cartoon. Illustration: Ben Jennings/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

1,300-year-old sketches in a religious text by a women named Eadburg have been discovered.
1,300-year-old sketches in a religious text by a women named Eadburg have been discovered. Photograph: handout

Researchers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford have found the old English name of a highly educated woman, Eadburg, and a number of tiny whimsical sketches (pictured above), scratched on to the pages of a rare medieval manuscript. Through the use of cutting-edge technology to reveal the 3D surface of the manuscript, the academics were able to uncover a 1,300-year-old secret. Not only is this discovery a testament to the human urge to want to leave a mark on the world that stands the tests of time, it is also evidence of the presence of women who could have created, owned or used these medieval manuscripts. Jessica Hodgkinson, the PhD student who discovered these etchings, hopes to find out who Eadburg was and the meaning behind these sketches. “We don’t know all that much about Eadburg, but now, because of this amazing technology, we’ve seen her name, we know she was there,” says Hodgkinson. “She’s here, in this book – and it speaks across the centuries.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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