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Protests, which are outlawed in China, gain attention and participants

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to bring in another voice to our conversation. Lijia Zhang is with us now. She's a journalist and writer who organized factory workers in China in the late 1980s. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

LIJIA ZHANG: My pleasure.

MARTIN: What do you make of these protests? Are they surprising to you at all?

ZHANG: Well, surprising, yes, but also unsurprising, you know? I have to point out that public protests like this are rare in China because they are not allowed. Yet, people have gone to the street to voice their anger and frustration against the excessive lockdown measures. And more remarkably, and some have demanded bigger issues like - such as freedom, the rule of law. And in Shanghai, some have even called for President Xi to step down.

MARTIN: I mean, is there a parallel to that?

ZHANG: Parallel to 1989.

MARTIN: 1989, the year of Tiananmen, yeah.

ZHANG: Yes, I do see that. For example, 1989 happened because a student went to street to demand the rehabilitation of the former liberal-minded parties that - General Secretary Hu Yaobang. And they went on to demand other things, like greater freedom and human rights. So yes, I do see the parallel. And in both cases, and like we witnessed over the weekend, people sung national anthem. One line goes, rise up, rise up, those who do not want to be a slave. That has been in both cases. Also, I remember I would sing this back in 1989. That has become a symbol, a rallying call to act, to rebel.

MARTIN: What do you think it is about this particular moment that has generated this level of discontent? I mean, is it just the COVID protocols, which I shouldn't dismiss? I mean, they're very, very onerous, very restrictive. But is it a culmination of many things that has drawn this out right now?

ZHANG: I would say that some - most primarily because of the overly strict lockdown measures. And the one thing I'd like to point out is that, you know, until about one year ago, the Chinese citizens willingly accepted these measures. And then the rest of the world has resumed normal life. But China has continued those COVID zero policy, which has taken a really punishing role on people's life. And the anger - as Emily pointed out, the anger and frustration have been building up, have been bubbling.

And also, as she pointed out, these - what triggered those protests was a deadly fire in a tower block building in Urumqi, which killed 10 people. And it was blamed on the lockdown measures. And also, but an interesting twist, there was - local authorities had denied this. And some even blamed victim for not reacting quickly enough. That really angered ordinary people.

And there's also - another thing is that, speaking with local authorities, the part of the problem is that some local officials competed with each other in coming up with ridiculous measures - for example, even testing fish and prawns. Before the party congress, you know, lockdown was imposed on two cities in central China where there was not even a single case. So I would say what triggered the protests was because of the excessive lockdown measures. But some are not happy with Xi, who had just taken another third term, which has violated the party succession convention.

MARTIN: So those of us who are old enough to remember do remember the images of the tank in Tiananmen Square and the pro-democracy demonstrators standing there in isolation as the tank approached. We know the outcome of those protests. There was no democratic revolution in China. We remember the protests recently in Hong Kong over those oppressive national security laws, pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets. Again, we know how that ended - no big democratic revolution. What do you anticipate for this moment and the future of these demonstrations?

ZHANG: I think it is all up to Xi Jinping and this zero COVID policy. And that's his signature policy, which he sees as the key to cement his power. And I think there are two possibilities. One is that, you know, the authority will increase the crackdown. And secondly, they probably will have to relax the rules and probably give people a outline. And, you know, but right now, it is open-ended. The people just have no idea when to end. And personally, I do hope that President Xi will be - would be wise to remember the old Chinese saying, people are like water and the ruler a boat. The water can carry a boat, but also can overturn it.

MARTIN: Writer and journalist Lijia Zhang. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

ZHANG: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUO SIRC'S "REPLICATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.