The protest scenes playing out over the last few days in Shanghai are the most notable that the city has experienced since the late 1980s.
Thirty-five years ago, most Shanghai residents lived on the edge of a barely tolerable poverty, in Jing’An District as well as throughout the city. Sizable but ultimately manageable protests, mostly led by university students, took place in 1986 and 1989. Those protests focused not on overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party, but on asking it to allow press and other freedoms, within the construct of CCP rule.
That generation did not take to the streets to protest their economic or living conditions, dire as they were. Throughout central Shanghai, people lived in close, cramped, and often unsanitary quarters, often with no indoor plumbing and only dangerous and dirty coal briquettes for heating. The living space for a family of five – husband and wife, son, daughter-in-law, and child – was often no more than 25 square meters.
University students typically owned two sets of clothes. They bathed once a week, if lucky. They lived on stipends of the equivalent of less than $1 a day.
Despite those conditions, students protested for ideological reasons, calling for freedoms of the mind and heart.
Is it those people who, three decades later, are protesting in the streets against invasive and seemingly endless COVID-19 restrictions? By and large, no. As Shanghai pursued a policy of clearances in the 1990s in the central part of the city, residents were displaced from their shanties, shacks, and slum homes. Although they were usually given new apartments on the outskirts of Shanghai, the forced moves tore apart not only old neighborhoods but also generational friendships. In their place have arrived newcomers with the financial wherewithal to rent and buy upscale apartments in a prime location of the city.
Wulumuqi Road, the epicenter of COVID-focused protests in Shanghai over the last weekend of November, is one of those locations. The road is named after the Mandarin for Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where a fire broke out in an apartment building on Thursday, November 24, reportedly killing 10 people, and injuring nine.
In the case of Wulumuqi Road, however, it was originally not home to illegally built shacks; on the contrary, since the late 19th century, the area became known for its finely crafted homes and gracious mansions. Those residences, however, were not built for Chinese citizens, but for foreign ones.
Wulumuqi Road runs right through the heart of the former French Concession, the area of Shanghai that gave France complete sovereignty over life and law within its borders. The concession, one of many foreign carve-outs in Shanghai from the mid-1800s on into the 1940s, has typically been considered a symbol of humiliation by most Chinese. After the Communist Party took over China in 1949, most homes and mansions were nationalized and divided into small apartments. What used to be homes for single foreign families became dwellings for up to 12 families, all of them of course Chinese.
Since privatization of property (not land) has taken hold in China over the last three decades, these homes have largely been purchased by private investors and restored to much of their former glory. They are worth a fortune, even in a softening real estate market. Often running into the tens of millions of U.S. dollars to buy, apartment rentals in these renovated old homes can easily stretch past $5,000 a month.
Why would those with that standard of living risk everything to go into the streets and openly protest their government’s policies? There are cameras everywhere. Every single person whose face was not masked or covered will have been identified through facial recognition technology that can find and tie that information to national photo card identification databases. It’s a matter of seconds or less before the protesters are flagged as problems, or worse.
Is there a new revolutionary passion boiling up from within the core of Chinese society?
The spark that sent Shanghai’s nouveau riche and others into the streets was a rumor, and now a belief, that those who died in the Urumqi fire were trapped due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Urumqi, as the capital of already politically fraught Xinjiang region, is home to the ever-maligned minority of Muslim Uyghurs. The building were the fire took place was located in a majority Uyghur neighborhood.
The Uyghurs are not the most popular people in China. They are seen as a source of domestic terrorism and trouble – including by their own government, which has targeted them with repressive policies the United Nations says may amount to crimes against humanity. The majority Han population of China does not ordinarily run to their side or champion their causes.
But something stirred when Chinese state television broadcast the report of the fire. People did not know or care whether the victims were Uyghur, Han, or otherwise. What mattered was that 10 Chinese citizens had died in a fire, probably because they were trapped by COVID-19 lockdowns.
People could relate to that. Millions of Shanghainese have experienced being locked into their apartment buildings and into their compounds, for days and weeks at a time. Millions of other Chinese across the country have, as well. When they saw the fire in Urumqi, they saw themselves in it.
One key observation from the protests can be made: Chinese citizens clearly do not believe the Chinese state media report about the fire and its victims. The state broadcaster CCTV reported that the cause of the fire was an electric socket extension, and that the building was “low-risk” for COVID-19 cases. People, authorities said, were allowed to go downstairs.
Yet the protests are clear evidence that many Chinese believe that people were trapped due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Even if authorities are telling the truth, they will not be believed, as they are clearly not considered trustworthy or reliable. Essentially, a well-to-do segment of the Chinese population has just demonstrated to the Communist Party that it doesn’t believe a word the CCP says. The press freedoms that students demonstrated for in the 1980s have not come to pass.
That should be an object lesson for Xi Jinping, but of course, it doesn’t appear to be. Security has been ramped up, the usual specter of “foreign forces” has been raised to identify the culprits who organized and supported the protests, and police have used a heavy hand in dispersing crowds.
At the time of writing, the protests have largely died down in Shanghai. No Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi appears to have yet risen as a galvanizing force to take protests to the next level, either in numbers or in spirit. People may feel that they have made their point, and that going further isn’t worth it – especially amid an overwhelming police presence at potential protest sites.
Dr. Miao Ying, a lecturer at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University, has explored the gap between belief and practice in middle class China. Writing about “the seemingly paradoxical attitudes of the Chinese middle class towards democracy, social stability, and reform” in a 2016 article in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, Miao argued that a “group of objective, middle-class individuals can concurrently display high levels of support for democratic principles and low levels of participation in real-life socio-political events.”
Based on field studies in Ningbo, Miao concluded that China’s middle class is “confident in China’s social stability,” and that they therefore “have little to no desire for significant democratic reform, or indeed any reform that occurs outside the purview of the state, as it is considered destabilizing.”
Miao argued that “the distinction between how these members of the middle class respond to generic democratic concepts, real-life sociopolitical affairs, and the idea of democratic reform” demonstrates that “the Chinese middle class are aware of what ‘should be,’ what ‘could be,’ and what ‘is,’ which lends their socio-political attitudes a paradoxical appearance.”
That paradox, in a nutshell, is what the world has seen in Shanghai since November 24. Shanghai, indeed, all of China, is being tested. Is zero COVID the new form of stability, or is returning to life before COVID the ultimate goal? China’s middle class live not only in a paradox, but also in a dilemma, as well.