'We Want Freedom': Chinese Protests Reflect Frustration With Country's Continuing COVID Restrictions

Plus: Reason's holiday gift guide, a possible new antitrust suit against Microsoft, and more...


Chinese revolt against "zero COVID" policies. While the rest of the world moves on from COVID-19 containment measures, many Chinese citizens have still been subjected to lockdowns and other restrictions on movement. They've finally had enough.

Protests broke out Friday in Urumqi, after an apartment fire killed at least 10 people and injured others. COVID restrictions may have impeded people's efforts to escape.

"Protests spread to cities and college campuses around China on Saturday night, reflecting rising public anger at the country's draconian Covid controls, with some in a crowd in Shanghai directing their fury at the Communist Party and its top leader, Xi Jinping," reports The New York Times:

The tragedy has fanned broader calls to ease China's harsh regimen of Covid tests, urban lockdowns and limits on movement nearly three years into the pandemic. For much of that time, many accepted such controls as a price for avoiding the widespread illness and deaths that the United States, India and other countries endured. But public patience has eroded this year as other nations, bolstered by vaccines, moved back to something like normal, even as infections continued. And after years of enforcing the strict "zero Covid" rules, many local officials appear worn down.

Efforts to ease these rules keep failing in the face of new outbreaks.

"Barely a week after no longer requiring residents to show a negative Covid test to use mass transit, the authorities in the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang have locked down much of the city for five days as infections surge," the Times reported last week. "In Shanghai, many neighborhoods have begun requiring frequent Covid tests again only days after telling residents that the tests were seldom needed."

Protesters this past weekend chanted, "We want freedom."

"There is only one disease in the world, that is, being unfree and poor, and now we have both," said a man in Chongqing in a video that began spreading widely last week. "Give me liberty or give me death!"

William Hurst, a Cambridge University professor who studies Chinese politics and protest, wrote this weekend that the protests are "novel in that protesters have appeared on the streets in multiple cities with apparent knowledge of what is happening in other parts of the country," in contrast to past protests, which have generally been localized or confined to a specific group (such as students or workers).

In this case, distinct groups have been airing different complaints, but all with COVID policies as a central theme. Some of these complaints have morphed into more generalized anger at the Communist regime. "Workers in Zhengzhou and elsewhere are engaged in labour protests, but with #ZeroCovid as a kind of frame for their grievances. Students across dozens of campuses, similarly are mounting familiar kinds of protest, but also framed around Covid," noted Hurst.

So far, the Chinese authorities' response to the protests has not been "nearly as harsh, repressive, or even coordinated as we might have predicted," Hurst added.

Taisu Zhang, a historian at Yale University, points out the role played by that China's centralized COVID policies. These boosted the state's popularity in the early days of the pandemic, when the efforts appeared to be working to suppress COVID. But after those policies started to malfunction, they gave protesters a centralized, national target.

"Centralization and systemic political coherency is a high-risk, high-reward thing, but the upsides of the rewards are probably not as high as the downsides of the risks are low," commented Zhang. But in China, "decentralization doesn't seem to politically viable anymore, at least not as a matter of central level political discourse. That, more than the protests, and even more than whatever damage zero-Covid will do/has already done, is the main reason to worry about the country's long term socioeconomic prospects."


Reason's 2022 holiday gift guide is here. Each year, Reason staffers offer their best holiday shopping recommendations, from board games and comic books to coffee accessories and "Come Back With A Warrant" doormats. Check it out if you're looking for some fun and libertarian-adjacent gift ideas…or just to see how well you know us. Can you guess which Reasoner recommended musical theater tickets? Montessori-inspired toys? A really fancy bong?


Another anti-tech antitrust lawsuit? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is expected to challenge Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the company behind Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and several other hit video games. From Politico:

A lawsuit challenging the deal is not guaranteed, and the FTC's four commissioners have yet to vote out a complaint or meet with lawyers for the companies, two of the people said. However, the FTC staff reviewing the deal are skeptical of the companies' arguments, those people said….

Central to the FTC's concerns is whether acquiring Activision would give Microsoft an unfair boost in the video game market. Microsoft's Xbox is number three to the industry-leading Sony Interactive Entertainment and its PlayStation console. Sony, however, has emerged as the deal's primary opponent, telling the FTC and regulators in other countries that if Microsoft made hit games like Call of Duty exclusive to its platforms Sony would be significantly disadvantaged.

The Sony thing might seem silly, but the Biden FTC has been less concerned with consumer welfare than with the effect of business moves and mergers on competitors. So it wouldn't be out of character for the FTC to intervene here, even if no one is alleging that Microsoft taking over Activision will be bad for video game consumers.


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