As years of severe “zero-COVID” restrictions come to an abrupt halt in China, relations between the country’s rulers and the ruled are under strain.
People who once supported zero-COVID have been left wondering what the years of tough restrictions were for now that nearly all the policies put in place to protect people have been dropped and COVID-19 is running rampant through China’s population.
The surprise policy reversal by President Xi Jinping’s administration has also left some previously apolitical people feeling deeply embittered by their leaders in Beijing.
In China’s biggest city, Shanghai, 31-year-old Ming Li – who asked that her real name not be used – was among those who took to the streets at the end of November to commemorate people killed in an apartment block fire in the western Chinese city of Urumqi.
Those participating blamed strict lockdown policies for the victims being unable to escape the burning apartments and the vigils quickly morphed into street protests throughout urban China. Demonstrators like Ming Li railed against the restrictions, which for nearly three years had defined life in China.
As the protests gained momentum at the end of last year, demands to do away with zero-COVID transformed into also doing away with the leaders who had enforced those policies, said Ming Li, who described to Al Jazeera the moment when the vigil became a full-blown anti-government protest.
She recounted how a man in the crowd of protesters shouted: “Xi Jinping!”.
Ming Li, along with everyone else nearby, responded with: “Step down!”
The man continued to shout, Ming Li said, and the crowd continued to respond:
A month after the protests, Ming Li recalled how the demonstration and that chanting was the most intense experience of her life.
That public expression of dissent was also the most overt public display of defiance against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in more than a generation.
Ming Li described the protests as emerging from a mix of pent-up frustration, desperation and rage that was spontaneously released onto the Chinese streets.
“All that energy was channelled into a call,” she told Al Jazeera.
Those protest calls were “on behalf of all of those that not only wanted a change to the zero-COVID policy but a change to the top of the Chinese leadership as well”, she said.
As Ming Li and her fellow protesters in Shanghai were calling for Xi Jinping to step down, a 23-year-old – whom Al Jazeera is referring to as Chen Wu – joined protesters in Beijing to demand an end to the zero-COVID policy.
Chen Wu, however, did not go as far as the Shanghai protesters who called for Xi to step down.
“That is a very dangerous thing to call for in public in China, and I don’t think things would change if Xi Jinping steps down,” he explained.
“But I do think that the Communist Party should start to share some of their 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 was saving,” he explained.
“And since zero-COVID was promoted by the top leadership then our demand was directed at them.”
The November protests against the zero-COVID policy, along with the anti-government messages that emerged, seemed to catch the Chinese leadership by complete surprise.
Less than two weeks later, the authorities announced the discontinuation of certain key elements of the zero-COVID policy, beginning a process that has now seen most of the policy dismantled.