High up on the 15th floor of a residential building in China, a power strip caught fire. The flames soon engulfed apartments and burned at least three floors to a blackened crisp. At least ten people died in the blaze, according to authorities, who have vowed to find out what caused the tragedy on Thursday in the city of Urumqi, in the far-western region of Xinjiang.
But to the thousands of protesters who have swarmed streets in over a dozen Chinese cities over the last few days, what caused the tragedy is clear: COVID measures trapped victims and hindered rescue efforts.
The mounting anger is directed at local officials zealously enforcing COVID rules, including by fencing off entire neighborhoods and locking people in their homes. But increasingly, residents across China are questioning the country’s “zero COVID” policy as a whole—and even challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.
Protests over the weekend were reported in cities including Wuhan, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Beijing, as well as in the campuses of at least 50 universities. And in a stunning show of dissent on Sunday, a crowd in Shanghai called on China’s leader to step down, a call that could be seen as seditious and lead to years of imprisonment.
“Xi Jinping, step down! The Communist Party, step down!” protesters can be heard shouting in a video.
The nationwide movement poses the biggest challenge facing China’s “zero COVID” regime to date—and there seem to be few good options for the government to settle public anger.
Yielding to the protesters’ demand and ending the country’s strict control measures may quell anger and revive a battered economy, but it could also lead to a surge in COVID deaths, and with that, potentially a new wave of discontent. A tough crackdown on the protests, however, could fuel further anger.
The chief consideration preventing China from relaxing its COVID measures, public health experts say, is its low vaccination rates, especially among elderly people. Only 65 percent of people in China aged 80 or above have been fully vaccinated, and only 40 percent have received a booster shot, according to Chinese health authorities. In comparison, 85 percent of South Koreans aged 80 and over have been boosted. In Canada and Norway, 92 percent of those 80 and above have received a COVID booster.
In late 2020, when the COVID-19 vaccines were first rolled out worldwide, many countries prioritized inoculating the elderly—the most vulnerable group. But China took the opposite approach and excluded them from initial rollouts, fearing side effects in a population that could have more existing health conditions than their younger cohorts. The initial success of “zero COVID” also made many complacent, and local officials had few incentives to encourage vaccinations.
“Any country with such a low vaccination rate for those above age 80 would say it’s like a medical disaster,” said Xi Chen, a professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health.
And while at three doses, China’s homemade Sinovac vaccine is as effective as mRNA varieties Pfizer and Modernas, a study in July found that the Chinese vaccine is significantly less effective if only two doses are given.
“This is very, very bad,” Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said of China’s lack of foreign-made vaccines amid a looming surge in cases. "Unless they can develop a vaccine of equivalent efficacy, they should immediately approve the Moderna or and Pfizer products.”
If China were to end its “zero COVID” approach, it would result in 1.55 million excess deaths and the peak demand for intensive-care units would exceed current capacity by 14.6 times, a 2022 peer-reviewed study published in Nature found. In such a scenario, China’s older people would likely bear the brunt of the virus.
It’d take more social unrest or, ironically, the virus spreading out of control for the government to give up on trying to eliminate it, Chen said. But for Xi, more could be at stake were the country to give up on his signature COVID policy.
China has claimed that the success of its pandemic measures shows the superiority of its political system, holding on to mass testing, centralized quarantine, and frequent lockdowns despite their impact on everyday life.
Now a climbdown could hurt the credibility and image of the party domestically; Chinese censors, acutely aware of this, have sought to erase all mentions of the recent unrest from social media. Even the word “Shanghai,” where the largest protests are taking place, is currently deemed sensitive, returning fewer than 1,000 filtered results when searched on the social media site Weibo.
This level of censorship isn’t surprising. Chinese authorities have gone as far as to broadcast alternate footage of the World Cup avoiding close-up shots of fans after images of maskless fans in Qatar prompted Chinese viewers to question their own COVID restrictions.
“Are we living on a different planet?” a Chinese social media user asked in an open letter on the messaging app WeChat last week, before being censored.