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Protesters in China call for the end of the 'zero COVID' policy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over the last few days, something truly extraordinary has been happening in China - street protests in cities, on college campuses, from the far west to the coast. And this in a country where protests are often stopped before they can start. Demonstrators have been calling for the government to end its strict zero-COVID policy and, more broadly, to give the people more rights. I'm joined now by NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. Hey there.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: OK. So these protests broke out over the weekend. Get us up to speed on their current status. Are they continuing to spread?

RUWITCH: Well, there's still sporadic protests, but it does seem like the spread has slowed, which I guess in some ways is predictable. You know, the police are stepping up actions to kind of nip would-be demonstrations in the bud. In Shanghai, for instance, where there were street protests on Saturday night and on Sunday, the authorities set up barriers. They set up blue walls and roadblocks and are checking people going in and out. They're making arrests as well, stopping people at random, apparently. And there's reports that some folks are being asked to delete photos on their phones from the area. You know, some are reporting also they've received phone calls from the authorities warning them not to go out onto the streets to protest. Yeah. So the authorities are squeezing the space for these demonstrations, you know, even though some are continuing.

KELLY: Yeah. OK. So sounds like maybe things are dying down a little bit. But is it true what I said when I introduced you? - the fact that these protests are happening at all is extraordinary.

RUWITCH: It is true. I mean, in Xi Jinping's China over the past decade, the authorities have really ramped up censorship. They've enhanced party control over everything. But people are getting around it. They're using VPNs, virtual private networks, to circumvent internet controls. They're using apps like Telegram, which is an encrypted cloud-based messaging platform, to get past censors. The so-called xiaodao xiaoxi - like, the rumor mill in China is churning at full speed. And people are also getting creative in these protests. You know, in many places folks are holding up blank white pieces of paper as a form of protest, speaking volumes without using any words, really.

And I saw a picture online of folks holding up an obscure scientific formula that is apparently called the Friedmann equation. And why are they doing this? 'Cause Friedmann sounds like freed men. So, yeah, one of the most, you know, repressive places on Earth when it comes to internet freedom and freedom of speech, you know, still people are managing to find a way.

KELLY: And I want to get to the root cause. As we noted, these protests have become about something bigger than just COVID. But they started over COVID and the very tough COVID policies that China has carried out throughout the pandemic. Why are authorities there still so wedded to zero-COVID? I mean, they have a vaccine.

RUWITCH: Yeah. I mean, it's important to remember that until recently, zero-COVID was sort of working. I mean, they had kept case counts low. It had broad support. Life in China was pretty normal. But about a year ago, the omicron variant changed the game. And what's happened is the party has just struggled to adapt. Zero-COVID's less effective. It's hurting the economy now. It's grown unpopular. And there doesn't seem to be a Plan B or an endgame.

Chinese vaccines are not as effective as mRNA vaccines from abroad, but, for what experts believe to be political reasons, they're not importing COVID vaccines. Vaccination rates, in any event, are low among the elderly. And of course, China has a huge population. So there is a legitimate concern that hospitals might not be able to cope with what is undoubtedly going to be a flood of serious cases if they drop their guard. The party, for its part, has said, yep, we get it. There's a cost to this zero-COVID, but dropping the policy would have a bigger cost.

KELLY: So what are you watching for from China for its next move? I mean, where would you put the chances that these protests will have an impact on government policy?

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's the $64,000 question. The government has been doing some small things in Beijing. You know, on Monday, it announced that it was banning barricading of gates. William Hurst, a professor at the University of Cambridge - and I asked him about this. He says major concessions are unlikely, but full-on repression also carries high risks and costs for the authorities.

WILLIAM HURST: I suspect what they're doing is they're just trying to wait to see if it fizzles because it may well fizzle within a couple of days. And if it does, I think, you know, the government will breathe a sigh of relief and just move on.

RUWITCH: The problem is that the underlying complaints will still be there and may bubble up in the future.

KELLY: That is our China affairs correspondent, NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks, John.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.