Chinese people protesting against Covid restrictions in Beijing, November 27, 2022. Protests have petered out as authorities loosen measures. Image: Screengrab / Skynews

China was wracked with unprecedented “anti-zero-Covid” protests in late November 2022. They started with a fire in Urumqi city, Xinjiang. At least 10 people perished after not being allowed to leave the building due to Covid-19 restrictions. Local street demonstrations followed this tragedy.

The next day, local authorities declared that the city had been rid of Covid-19 at the community level and issued a number of tone-deaf statements about the need for individual protection.

The demonstration in Xinjiang was followed on Saturday, November 26 by a protest on Urumqi Road in Shanghai, where residents also railed against China’s current zero-Covid policy. Unusually, protestors called for regime change. Since then, there have been reports of nearly 100 protests in different parts of China, mainly in universities.

It is easy to elevate the significance of these protests. But protests are both more common and more easily dealt with in China than commonly understood. There have been major political protests in China in the past few decades and the playbook for dealing with them is well established.

Leaders blame problems on local government implementation and crack down hard on generalized statements such as “this was the Party’s fault.” They also hit the leaders of protests hard, but usually leave the protesters themselves alone.

What is new in these Covid-19 protests is that many different issues are being refracted through the lens of the virus. Workers protesting about labor rights use the pandemic as a frame for grievances, but that is a different matter from those seeking greater freedoms of speech or political rights, or wanting to criticize China’s leaders.

Notably, the state response was not nearly as harsh, repressive or even coordinated as external commentary suggests. Instead, protests were dissipated through control of social media platforms and through relocating protesters. Following this, there have been fewer reports of activities.

The protests are unlikely to change the regime, but they may have triggered changes in China’s Covid-19 policy. Why? Because they allowed Beijing to change its policy.

China has eased ‘zero-Covid’ rules in what was seen as a first step toward reopening but cases are spreading as restrictions are loosened. Photo: Screengrab / BBC

Some background here is important — as the power to make decisions over Covid-19 restrictions had already been delegated down to local leaders, Beijing can distance itself from the public frustration about harsh Covid-19 policies. Policymaking is not completely directive. Central leaders might give signals — as success or failure will be pinned on local leaders, they monitor these messages closely.

The signals coming from Beijing prior to the protests were vague and ambiguous. The most significant recent order from the leadership was issued on November 11. It called for some restrictions to be eased and urged local officials to refrain from indiscriminate Covid-19 restrictions. That was followed by a 20-point statement detailing how the virus should be handled.

Chinese internal assessments on the virus were frank well before the protests started. They said that “at present, the local epidemic situation in China is still severe and complicated”, and that local leaders must follow the “clear requirement put forward by the Party Central Committee for prevention of the epidemic.”

In fact, the center had given no clear direction on pandemic management. Instead, it was left to the ministries, who then passed instructions down to local leaders tasked with implementing Covid-19 restrictions “according to their own characteristics and realities.”

Local governments were indeed warned not to go too far, with the central government saying that “arbitrary” restrictions should be avoided. Every day, millions of schools, factories and residential compounds must wait for testing or other instructions before starting work.

This was not being controlled by local leaders, but rather by local administrators trying to work out what to do. There is not even a national health QR code. Contrary to fears of China’s surveillance state, there is no standard protocol for tracking the virus. That is a city-wide decision.

Local governments have to choose between opening up and controlling the virus. That has led to a huge number of problems, as everything is passed down the line until rules are implemented and interpreted at a very local level. Ambiguous top-down policy messages, coupled with convoluted transmission through the chain of command, leads to policy flip-flopping. And there are constantly different messages.

The city of Shijiazhuang adopted a looser interpretation of the central government orders and tried opening up in late November, only to be faced with reports of a fearful population that largely stayed home. There are, as always, many stories in China.

But after the protests, China’s leaders sent new messages about the virus. These were large and clear shifts, including making the virus sound less frightening and saying that local governments who are too restrictive with their prevention activities will be held accountable. They also changed the targets for vaccinations, focussing on the elderly.

Covid lockdowns have taken a heavy toll on China’s economy and society but signs of loosening are becoming more apparent after public protests. Image: Screengrab / HBO

What happens next remains to be seen. On policy direction, Beijing’s choice will likely be non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masking and contact reduction.

A shift to self-testing and quarantining at home, with local committees responsible for check-ups is the likely next step. Local governments will probably launch vaccination campaigns and the central government will focus on delivering more hospital beds, ramping up production of medical equipment and training more staff.

For the more complicated matters of vaccination mandates and lockdown settings, Beijing will leave policy formulation and specification to local governments. This may sound defeatist, but it actually offers China scope to back away from Covid-19-zero. Beijing can attribute things that go awry to local implementation failures rather than errors at the top.

In this way, protestors have accelerated China’s opening up.

Dr Ryan Manuel is managing director of Bilby, a Hong Kong-based company that uses AI to analyze policy.

This article, republished with permission, was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.