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Closings and Delays

People across China are protesting for democratic reform and easing COVID controls

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Protests are growing across China, calling for an end to COVID lockdown rules and for democratic reform. They began on Friday after a deadly fire killed ten people. Witnesses say the victims were unable to escape because they were in a building under lockdown. NPR's Emily Feng is in Taiwan and has been following this from the start. Emily, good morning.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Emily, how rare is it to see this kind of open dissatisfaction being expressed in China today?

FENG: It is extremely rare, but it just seems like people are so angry, and they're so fed up with nearly three years now of COVID controls that the dam has just broken. Here's what some protesters were shouting Saturday night at a protest in Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Xi Jinping.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Xi Jinping.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Chinese).

FENG: They're shouting, "Down with Xi Jinping." And later they start shouting, "Down with the Communist Party of China." And they're standing on Shanghai's Urumqi Road. This is a major downtown street, and it's named after the city, Urumqi, where that horrible apartment fire you just mentioned happened on Friday, and these protests are happening all across China, and they started because people were getting together. They're holding these candlelight vigils to commemorate the people who were killed in the Urumqi fire, but those protests have now spread from Urumqi and Shanghai to the streets and university campuses all over the country including in the capital, Beijing, where, just a few hours ago at prestigious Tsinghua University, there were protests that happened again. Tsinghua is the alma mater of China's leader, Xi Jinping, and here's what students were shouting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Chinese).

FENG: So you can hear a few hundred people shouting, "We want rule of law and democracy."

FOLKENFLIK: How has the government responded?

FENG: Well, in some limited ways, the protests have actually succeeded. For example, in Urumqi where the first protest began, authorities actually caved. They gave a press conference saying, after these demonstrations, we're going to let some people go out of lockdown after more than 100 days of not being able to leave their homes in neighborhoods that are low-risk, that don't have active cases.

But the state is swinging into action to crack down on these protests and just hide how pervasive they're becoming, so they've turned up censorship. Thousands of social media posts are being taken down an hour showing the protests. And instead, state propagandists are flooding the internet with distracting videos of, like, animals and cute girls. And police are making mass arrests. As soon as people disperse from these protests, police are coming through, and they're detaining people. Police have barricaded basically all of the sites where previous protests have taken place. And I'm in some of these online groups where people are trying to organize further vigils in Beijing, and people in those groups are saying it's just not safe. There are detentions ongoing and there are police patrols all over the city.

FOLKENFLIK: What is the likelihood that the demonstrators' other demands - demands for democratic reform, demands for freedom of speech - could be addressed by the government?

FENG: It's a good question, and it's one that a lot of people are asking. I mean, protesters have already achieved a lot despite political controls and fear of arrest. They've already come out, and that's extraordinary in what's now a very powerful surveillance state. But precedent suggests that it's only really going to be a day or two more before the full weight of state control leads to these demonstrations fizzling out. That's my prediction. That could be wrong. But what might actually change is "zero-COVID" policy because COVID cases are continuing to rise in China, and if they want to bring them down to zero, they're going to need to implement a full lockdown. But as we've seen from these protests, people don't want lockdowns anymore, and they're not going to follow lockdowns anymore. So the country faces a pretty tough call going forward about whether or not they have to abandon "zero-COVID" altogether.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Taiwan. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.