Two things stand out to us when thinking about public protests in today’s People’s Republic of China (PRC). First, although it is easy for outsiders to view the PRC as having become such a tightly controlled, surveilled, and censored place that there is no room for dissent, this has never been the case — as the mass exodus of factory workers and then burst of urban demonstrations that began in the second half of November reminded the world so powerfully. Even in an era when expressing dissenting opinions about key policies is hugely risky, some people keep finding ways to give them voice. There is a common thread linking the protests of 2022 to the Wuhan Lockdown protests of 2020: anger over official cover-ups and frustration with intense limitations on basic rights and freedoms, and surveillance over the activities, of even those not been directly exposed to the virus.
Second, even though it is also easy to imagine that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is so firmly established and has such an extensive media system that it no longer needs to mount displays aimed at impressing the populace and reinforcing themes in daily propaganda, this also is not the case. Every year without fail, there are both protests and Party staged-ceremonies. Just as protests are intended to raise awareness of issues and rally public sentiment for change, these official spectacles are designed to propagate the notion of CPC greatness and rally people behind the status quo and the Party leadership’s campaigns. Following the initial city-wide lockdown in Wuhan, for example, the authorities organised exhibitions across China to celebrate the efforts of frontline medical staff, framing them as the ‘unsung heroes’ in a glorious CPC-led fight against the pandemic.
The year 2022 did not diverge from this enduring pattern. In autumn alone, before the November unrest at Foxconn and then the collective vigils for victims of the fire in Xinjiang whose deaths protesters blamed on strict COVID-19 lockdown measures, there were marches everywhere from Lhasa in the far west to Guangzhou in the southeast and a daring solo act of defiance in Beijing, in which a lone man risked his life and liberty to hang banners from a bridge. There were also many notable state rituals this year, the most significant being those that accompanied the twentieth Party Congress, which took place in October, sandwiched between the Beijing protest and those in Tibet and Guangzhou.
Not all years are created equal when it comes to the mix of popular protests and elite ceremonies. While each year witnesses both, some are remembered for just one kind: 1989 was a year of protests, for example, despite lavish state ceremonies, including the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC on 1 October 1989. By contrast, although 2015 saw many separate strikes by workers in different regions, expressions of outrage at the arrest of five feminist activists, and a protest in Tianjin by local residents demanding compensation for a warehouse explosion, it was above all a year of official ceremonies. The highest profile public event was the massive military parade in the capital that gave Xi Jinping a chance to stand beside visiting world leaders while commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two.
Most years are mixed. Take 2008. Yes, it saw the glittering opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. But there was also upheaval in Tibet, as well as expressions of anger over the high number of child deaths in the Sichuan earthquake — deaths attributed to the collapsing of shoddily constructed schools, which in turn was seen as the result of corruption.
When historians of the future look back on 2022, which sort of year will it be remembered as? We find this an intriguing question to contemplate for two reasons. The first reason is that 2022 was preceded by three years that can be seen as falling on distinctively different places on the spectrum.
A good argument can be made for 2019 as a mixed year. It was clearly a year of protest for one important part of the PRC, Hong Kong, with dramatic demonstrations and street clashes that rocked the city from June until the end of the year and beyond. Yet there were few significant protests in any other part of the PRC, and Beijing conducted grandiose rituals to mark the seventieth anniversary of the country’s founding.