Like years of strict “zero-COVID” restrictions have come to an abrupt halt in China, relations between the country’s rulers and the ruled are strained.
People who once supported zero-COVID wonder what the years of tight restrictions were before now that almost all policies have been put in place to keep people safe have fallen and COVID-19 is rampant through the Chinese population.
The surprising policy reversal by President Xi Jinping’s administration has also left some formerly apolitical people deeply bitter towards their leaders in Beijing.
In China’s largest city, Shanghai, Ming Li, 31, who requested that her real name not be used, was among those who took to the streets in late November to remember those killed in a fire at an apartment building in western China. Chinese city of Urumqi.
Participants blamed the strict lockdown policies on the victims unable to escape the burning apartments and the vigils quickly turned into street protests across urban China. Protesters like Ming Li protested the restrictions that had defined life in China for nearly three years.
As the protests gained momentum late last year, the requirement to abolish zero COVID also changed away with the leaders who enforced that policy, said Ming Li, who described to Al Jazeera the moment when the vigil grew into a full-blown anti-government protest.
She related how a man in the crowd of protesters yelled, “Xi Jinping!”.
Ming Li, along with everyone else nearby, responded with, “Stand down!”
The man kept shouting, Ming Li said, and the crowd kept responding:
A month after the protestsMing Li remembered how the demonstration and singing was the most intense experience of her life.
That public display of dissent was also the most overt expression of opposition to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in more than a generation.
Ming Li described the protests as arising from a mix of pent-up frustration, despair and anger that spontaneously erupted on the Chinese streets.
“All that energy was channeled into a call,” she told Al Jazeera.
Those protest calls were “on behalf of everyone who wanted not only a change from the zero-COVID policy, but also a change from the top Chinese leadership,” she said.
As Ming Li and she fellow demonstrators in Shanghai Calling on Xi Jinping to resign, a 23-year-old — whom Al Jazeera refers to as Chen Wu — joined protesters in Beijing to demand an end to the zero-COVID policy.
However, Chen Wu did not go as far as the Shanghai protesters called for Xi to step down.
“That’s very dangerous to call out publicly in China, and I don’t think things would change if Xi Jinping steps down,” he explained.
“But I do think the Communist Party should start sharing some of its power with the people,” he said.
So why did he join the protests against COVID-19 restrictions?
“I believe the policy was slowly destroying more lives than it saved,” he explained.
“And since zero-COVID was being promoted by top leadership, our demand was directed at them.”
The protests in November against the zero-COVID policy, along with the anti-government messages that emerged, seemed to get hold of Chinese leaders by complete surprise.
Less than two weeks later, authorities announced the discontinuation of certain key elements of the zero COVID policy, kicking off a process where most of the policy has now been dismantled.
From apolitical to political
Despite their political demands, both Chen Wu and Ming Li described themselves as largely apolitical until recently.
For Ming Li, the turn to politics began with the severe restrictions imposed on daily life in Shanghai in 2022.
The city of 25 million people was almost completely closed in April to thwart an outbreak of the Omicron variant. The megacity was in a suffocating lockdown for almost two months. During that time, there were stories of forced quarantines, food shortages, separation of children and babies from their parents, and even suicides.
“It was a living nightmare,” Ming Li recalled.
“I had never thought much about political issues before, but during the lockdown I started to wonder what kind of leadership would put its own people through such hell to fight a virus that has already hit much of the world. passed,” she said. .
A bus accident in Guizhou province in September marked a turning point for Chen Wu. The bus was carrying 47 people to a quarantine center when it overturned on the highway, killing 27 of them.
“The accident convinced me that the Communist Party’s zero-COVID policy was killing people and should be ended,” he said.
A frayed social contract
It is often said that an unofficial social contract underpins the relationship between the ruling Communist Party and the Chinese people: the CCP guarantees security, stability, and economic opportunity, and in turn, the Chinese citizen keeps out of politics and allows the CCP to rule unchallenged.
That unspoken contract has been compromised by the past year of COVID chaos as people’s lives and the Chinese economy took a serious hit.
There are also clear signs of dissatisfaction with authorities, especially with the zero COVID reversal coming so soon after the CCP’s 20th Congress in October, defending the superiority of China’s handling of COVID-19 while centralizing power in the hands of Xi and those close to him who had enforced the strict handling of the pandemic.
The hasty dismantling of zero-COVID has divided people into opponents and supporters of the policy, interviewees told Al Jazeera. It has also divided people into physically weak and strong people as the virus sweeps across the country.
However, what seems to unite all sides is mutual confusion and frustration towards the authorities over their handling of the pandemic.
Amidst the turmoil, Xi, in one speech on the occasion of the new year called for unity in China’s new approach to fighting COVID-19.
While people like Ming Li and Chen Wu see the end of COVID measures as steps in the right direction, others are disillusioned by the sudden change.
A 46-year-old from Chengdu named Xiang Hou was also not fond of the ongoing COVID restrictions. But he believed they served a greater good.
“Based on what I heard from the authorities, I thought that as a country we were fighting this virus together by giving up some liberties to stay safe so that we could avoid all COVID deaths in Europe and America,” he said. Al Jazeera.
As China eased and then dropped COVID restrictions, messages from authorities also changed.
It is no longer about China fighting the virus collectively by staying vigilant, but about individuals being responsible for their own health.
Xiang Hou feels that the policy and rhetoric have changed too quickly, leaving him confused and angry. His parents are elderly and unvaccinated, and he fears they may not make it COVID wave is now rippling through the land.
“I trusted that my government would do the right thing, but now I have doubts,” he said.
But 42-year-old Ching Tsao, also a pseudonym, from Guangzhou said she had no doubts: she has lost all faith in the central government.
She had believed in the zero COVID narrative and willingly gave up much of her social life, including traveling and visiting relatives, to protect the weak and elderly in Chinese society.
Her grandmother succumbed to the virus at the end of December.
“After all those sacrifices, the government still decided to open up very hastily and now everyone is getting sick and so many are dying,” said Ching Tsao.
“So what were the years of suffering for if we’re all going to get the virus anyway?”