SHANGHAI — On Saturday night, the center of Shanghai was teeming with young people in bars drinking and watching the World Cup on wide-screen televisions. They were rooting for Argentina, which was facing off against Mexico. (The Chinese love Lionel Messi, Argentina’s star striker.)
Then, something happened.
The message started to spread—mostly on Wechat, China’s No. 1 chat app—that a few people were gathering and lighting candles on Urumqi Road, in the French Concession, which is full of high-end bakeries and eateries and Shanghai’s famous, three-story lane houses.
Urumqi Road takes its name from the capital of Xinjiang, where, two days before, at least 10 people had died in a fire in an apartment building. All of the dead were Uyghurs.
The central government in Beijing would prefer the Chinese people forget the Uyghurs exist. More than a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been confined to so-called re-education camps; there have been forced sterilizations, forced labor, the forced teaching of Mandarin and the forced pledges of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. The fire seemed like an unintended consequence of the central government’s policy, and it had been blamed, in part, on the regime’s zero Covid policy and its overzealous enforcement in Xinjiang. For 48 hours, an outcry had been building online, and now it was threatening to spring into real life.
In China, real-life demonstrations are okay if they’re not explicitly political. Workers protest against unpaid wages. Residents protest pollution coming from nearby power plants. But people don’t protest or march or get angry about whatever the president or party is doing.
On Saturday night, they did.
When I reached Urumqi Road, there were maybe 50 police officers trying to block access to the vigil. Sounds were echoing from a small crowd and getting louder as I approached: “Yao ziyou!” they chanted, which means: We want freedom! They held their phones up to record the moment. I realized my heart was pounding. I’m 33, French, and I’ve lived in China for nine years—and I had never witnessed this kind of protest.
Some demonstrators held up blank sheets of paper. A woman in her late twenties explained to me: “Our country does not let us write anything here, but even if we don’t write anything, people know what we would like to say.” She meant they weren’t allowed to say what they really thought about the important things—the kind of country they wanted to live in—and now they were winking at one another, and it was like they were sharing a secret message that was no longer so secret. She added: “What I feel is that, for a few hours, I am free. Even if it is very short, for once, I can say what I want.” A friend of hers standing nearby suddenly burst into tears. “It’s the first time I’ve seen this in China,” she said.
While the rest of the world has mostly moved on from Covid, China is in year three of an increasingly brutal—and unsuccessful—effort to extinguish the virus. True, the country has seen relatively few Covid deaths, but it has come at a steep price: to keep people inside, the authorities have, in many cases, welded apartment doors shut or locked them with chains. A sophisticated digital-surveillance system keeps close tabs on everyone. Food and medicine have been in short supply. Children have been separated from parents, and people have been forced into quarantine camps. Depression and suicide have been on the rise.
The Urumqi tragedy was a galvanizing moment. After the fire, the people of Urumqi were the first to lead the way. Thousands defied the lockdown and took to the streets to protest, and with some success: they obtained the end of the restrictions in the least affected districts of the city.
Since then, protests have taken place at universities in Nanjing, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and in neighborhoods in Wuhan, Chongqing, and Lanzhou, where crowds have destroyed Covid testing booths.
Sliding through the tight crowd at the vigil on Urumqi Road, I discovered a small memorial: candles lit on the ground and wreaths of flowers laid in tribute to the victims of the fire. Some messages were also written on signs: “We don't forget: Guiyang, Urumqi, Henan, Xi'an.” These were the places where people had died during confinement. They hadn’t been able to get medical care; in one case, there had been a bus accident on the way to a quarantine center. Their deaths, their suffering, was now melding into everyone’s anger. It was becoming a cause.
The people at the vigil were mostly in their twenties or thirties. They felt walled off from the rest of the world, literally and otherwise. They chanted: “Health code, fuck you!” They sang the Chinese national anthem, and a revolutionary song that begins “Arise! Ye who refuse to be slaves!” In April, during the Shanghai lockdown, those words were censored on Weibo, China’s Twitter. The revolutionary was now, apparently, counterrevolutionary, or too revolutionary.
A Uyghur man in his thirties told me: “No freedom here.” He was from Urumqi and has relatives who lived in the building where the tragedy took place. “The building was locked down. They survived,” he said, referring to his extended family, “but they were terrified. I’m a man, I’m not used to crying, but for the last three days I've been crying all day.” He added: “You know, for us Uyghurs, it didn’t just start with the lockdown. We’ve been suffering for years in Xinjiang.”
Gradually, the crowd became more daring. They demanded freedom of expression, and freedom of the press. They yelled: “We don't forget 6/4,” which was a reference to the last time students challenged the government and demanded democracy, on Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989. The party crushed Tiananmen with tanks and machine guns.
When someone shouted, “Xi Jinping, resign,” the crowd exploded, and soon other people were saying it, and it was as if the shouter had broken a taboo in a country where people usually lowered their voice when mentioning the name of their leader.
Then someone else in the crowd shouted, “Down with the Communist Party,” which was a big no-no—the Chinese generally broadcast their ideological fervor—and the crowd loved that, too. It was like toppling the statue of a dictator. I told a colleague we were probably witnessing something important that might become very important.
Thomas, a 27-year-old who would only share his English name, shouted out in the middle of the crowd: “We want democracy!” He had an intellectual flair, with his velvet pants and black cap and round glasses, and he told me that he’d fallen into a deep depression during the Shanghai lockdown and that he’d be unable to recover so long as the threat of a new lockdown was still looming.
"It gives you a sense of helplessness,” Thomas told me. “I feel like life is not worth living.” He was angry, but for a few hours, on Urumqi Road, he wasn’t—he was on fire. “This is the first time in my life that I have seen a mobilization like this, on the street and not online.”
No one knows what comes next. The party is obsessed with stability, maintaining control. Since Tiananmen—which happened before many, if not most, of the people at the vigil were born—China has perfected its ability to contain unrest. But the movement that is building right now is complex and amorphous, pulling together urban, tech-savvy students and angry, ordinary people around the country sick of being unable to go outside or go to the market or share a cigarette with a friend.
The response so far has been a kind of toggling—the predictable crackdown followed by the teensiest, weensiest of concessions. An editorial published Monday by the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that locking up people’s homes with chains and blocking emergency exits is illegal. It was like the state reminding the state what not to do.
At the same time, the authorities issued a strong warning, calling for a "crackdown on illegal criminal acts that disrupt social order,” according to minutes from a meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees all domestic law enforcement in China.
Also: arrests are increasing. On Sunday, there were tons of police at the site of the vigil in Shanghai—which, since the news of the fire broke, had become a sort of go-to hub for the angry and dispossessed. Police didn’t want people leaving flowers (those were quickly removed). They dispersed the gathering crowd. A BBC cameraman was violently arrested and held for a few hours.
Officers were also seen inspecting people’s phones, looking for mentions of the protests or forbidden foreign apps like Telegram or Signal or Twitter. In some cases, police seized people and scanned their faces before releasing them. Thomas, the enthusiastic protester I ran into Saturday night, was arrested by the police on Sunday at work, one of his coworkers told me.
Since Tiananmen, there’s been a pretty straightforward trade-off in China between the state and the 1.3 billion human beings it presides over: You let us do whatever we want, and in exchange, you get rich (or, at least, richer). But during the pandemic, that trade-off faltered. It went off the rails. Not just that. The pandemic has shown this new generation of Chinese, which never suffered through Tiananmen, to say nothing of the Cultural Revolution, what the regime is capable of. What it is willing to do to its own people. I suspect the young people are rethinking the terms of their agreement with the overlords in Beijing. I suspect they want to renegotiate.