Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Across China, officials have sent university students home early for the semester. In some cases, arranging to pay for their travel and indicating that final exams will be taken online. According to AP reporting, these measures are being billed as an attempt to protect students from COVID-19, but are actually an effort to stem mass protests across the country. Citizens have been publicly demonstrating against China's strict lockdown and quarantine procedures, which are blamed for the deaths of 10 people, including three children in an apartment fire in the country's northwest province.
Protest messaging extends far beyond the demand to end the lockdown and unlock all of China. In recent demonstrations, some have called for Communist party leader Xi Jinping to step down. Christian Shepherd is a reporter at the Washington Post and has been covering these protests. He joins us now from Taiwan. Christian, welcome to The Takeaway.
Christian Shepherd: Great to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Clearly we've talked about the fire as a kind of literally an initiating spark of these protests. Talk to us about what you're hearing in terms of the depth of what these protests are about.
Christian Shepherd: Well, it's true that the fire was the single trigger that caused these protests. The roots go many months back. I think a few points to no doubt, one would be the lockdown we saw in Shanghai beginning in March. That was really the most dramatic lockdown outside of Wuhan that had happened in China since the start of the pandemic. People were really struggling to get food, to be able to go see a doctor. It was really very rough two months and people really started to question why they were sacrificing so much. That sentiment died away once the lockdown was lifted, but it continued to bubble and to pop out here and there around the country.
Then more recently, people were waiting for a change that they thought would happen at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in October. Everyone was expecting that this would be the moment when COVID restrictions would be loosened and China would start to open up again. Instead of that happening, there was a doubling down on the policy. What we are really starting to see is that people were just getting fed up. When they saw this fire happening in Urumqi in Xinjiang, although it's not being confirmed, residents believe that the COVID restrictions slowed the emergency response to the fire.
This discontent, this sense of frustration, this sense that zero COVID really wasn't working for China anymore, just lit this broader fuse that then spread across the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help people to understand what lockdown procedures and the zero COVID policy is in the context of China. It's quite different than some of the waves of what we've called shutdowns are lockdowns here in the US.
Christian Shepherd: China has a range of different levels of lockdown. Some are relatively benign, you might have to stay within your residential compound, but you could still go outside. Then there's another level which is actually deployed surprisingly frequently, where people are not even allowed to leave their homes. They could even have things pasted across the front of their door. Sometimes cameras are set up outside so that officials can check whether or not they're obeying the lockdown. Food will be delivered by a centralized system. It really means that you can't go outside for extended periods of time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Christian, some of the photos and videos that we've seen show protestors holding a blank white sheet of paper. What should we know about this symbol?
Christian Shepherd: The blank white sheet of paper, it's often being referred to now as the A4 movement or the blank paper movement. It's really trying to represent a few different things. One of them is the nature of censorship in China today, and the restrictions on freedom of speech that mean that people really can't say anything. The only thing they can do to protest is to hold up a blank sheet of paper. It's also saying something else as well. It's saying that we don't need to write what the problem is down, just by holding up this piece of paper everyone knows what we are protesting.
In some sense it's a way of saying that we have these shared grievances, whether they're the zero COVID policy or whether they're broader political and social issues.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It certainly seems to me that that sense of solidarity, that the need not even to speak what is being protested, that goes far beyond any single policy. Am I reading that accurately?
Christian Shepherd: I think that's right. At the core of these protests is the concern with zero COVID and the way it's been enforced in a very harsh manner by often low level officials. At the same time, there are all sorts of different issues that are coming out as people take to the streets. Sometimes it's really high level politics. It's Xi Jinping should step down. Then other times it's really very small things. It's things like, "I want to go to the office. I want to be able to go and see a movie." Many people are bringing their own grievances to these protests and that's why they've gathered so much momentum.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How is the government responding to these protests?
Christian Shepherd: The government's taken what I'd say is a two-pronged approach. After trying to clear the initial protests, which they tended to do with a bit of police presence and a bit of waiting out the protestors, the following day we really saw a escalation of a crackdown and a show of force. Some people who have been identified as leaders were taken away, and the police presence in locations that previously have been where protestors gathered. Those were warning people off coming out again. At the same time, they have responded by loosening restrictions. Testing requirements have been lowered in Beijing.
In Urumqi where the fire broke out, you see public transport coming back in home deliveries are being allowed again. It's really trying to say that, "We hear you, but also we are not responding directly to your problem." It's rather been that the government has said, "Look, we were loosening anyway. We made this announcement earlier in the month that we were optimizing the zero COVID policy." I think they're trying to have it both ways. "You shouldn't be protesting, but at the same time, we are going to try and deal with some of the root problems here."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why send the university students home early? What does that indicate to you about the concerns that the government may have?
Christian Shepherd: Universities are always really at the core of the Chinese Communist Party's concerns when it comes to public dissent. As early as 1989, as early as even before that, the roots of the Chinese Communist Party itself, all big protest movements in China, they start with university students. These are the intellectual elites. Whenever there's something like this which draws people across the country together, I think the thing the party is most concerned about is that you will have leaders, intellectual leaders emerge from university campuses and really push for broader change.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there any possibility of broader change emerging as a result of this series and set of protests?
Christian Shepherd: That's the question all of us reporting on China, researching China, are trying to answer. It's a really difficult one because the degree of control that the Chinese Communist Party has and that Xi Jinping himself has, is really unprecedented for many decades. It's hard to see that even this scale of protest could dramatically change the nature of China's political system. It is suggesting that maybe Xi Jinping's position isn't quite as strong as some of us thought it was. This is a signature policy of his, he's intimately tied himself to it. He's been described as personally leading it, personally giving instructions, and now it seems to have gone drastically wrong.
That really brings into question this whole structure he's set up where he is far more powerful than his immediate predecessors and is directly involved in policymaking. I think there's a really interesting question of whether or not this is going to move some of the debates within China about how useful it is to have a strongman leader.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if rather than shifting in a direct people to government power structure, that it shifts within the power structure itself, the sense of Xi Jinping's capacity to be challenged.
Christian Shepherd: Yes, I think that's right. Often what we look for when we're trying to work out the degree to which a Chinese leader is in control is signs of internal divisions within the party. Is there someone who is challenging the specific policies Xi Jinping is coming out with? Is there someone that seems to be amassing their own supporter base? Those are the kind of things we'll be looking for in the coming weeks and months. Has this rattled the very top of the party leadership?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Christian Shepherd is a reporter at the Washington Post. Christian, thank you for taking the time to join us today.
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