In this post we present an interview with a friend who was present at the November 27th protests on Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai. It’s important to note that this is not an interview with a Chinese participant in the protest and is certainly not the viewpoint of an “activist” involved in the movement. In this case the interviewee is a foreigner, fluent in Mandarin, who has lived and worked in mainland China for many years. We have therefore given them the pseudonym “John.” As is evident from the content below, the interviewee participated in the events exclusively as an observer and therefore offers an external view, albeit a first-hand one. The interview took place a few days after the protests, and a few days before the official announcement on December 7th that marked the end of China’s Zero-COVID policy. We are releasing it now, one year following the initiation of Shanghai’s major lockdown, which, as the interview shows, laid much of the groundwork for the autumn protests. One of the major questions we discuss is why those headline-grabbing protests took place at that time and in that way, when all kinds of protests and direct actions—some of them more confrontational and possibly larger-scale—had already taken place throughout China over the previous year, especially in Shanghai during the lockdown of spring 2022.[1] As mainstream coverage of events leading up to the dissolution of Zero-Covid has already addressed, the November wave of protests was clearly set off by the Ürümchi fire on November 24th. But what happened in Shanghai quickly became about much more than string of tragedies symbolized by the fire, sometimes targeting China’s pandemic policies as a whole and even the political regime itself. The interview below offers a few significant details missing from other English language accounts.

The protests constitute only one element in a series of struggles that occurred in the fall of 2022, including the Foxconn labor struggle in Zhengzhou and rebellions in urban villages throughout China.[2] However, the simultaneity of these events should not lead us into conflating them, as they each had their own respective temporalities, causes, conditions, class composition, demands and interests. As described below, the late November protests were part of perhaps dozens of protests conducted by a core of media-literate elite youth on university and college campuses across the country, in what came to be known as “white paper” protests. As reflected in the photo above and as discussed below, the concrete situation was more complicated, and blank pieces of printer paper (which became a Western media moniker for the protests as a whole), were barely visible at these events in Shanghai. A key task in understanding what really happened in many parts of China in November is to tease apart the specific conditions and limitations of each current of struggle that took place. This interview describes the nuances of the Shanghai iteration, its composition, novelties, and limitations. Readers will benefit from a close reading of this lengthy text, but first we’d like to highlight the following points:

  • To understand what happened in Shanghai during late November, we must look back to the months-long city-wide lockdown in the spring of 2022. This includes the collective experience accumulated during that earlier period of isolation, as well as a variety of collective struggles—many of which were successful at achieving immediate goals, such as being granted supplies after noise demos. Many people in Shanghai already knew that the authorities were sometimes willing to cave to their demands if they resisted in some way, and they had experience with creative collaboration in that regard. 
  • The protests occurred within a four to five block radius of the intersection of Wulumuqi Road[3] and Anfu Road, which contains several upscale shopping areas.
  • Sunday’s events began in the afternoon with a confused and awkward mob, escalated and then turned into a protest around sundown with greater police mobilization, before descending into chaos in the evening as riot police and mass arrest busses were brought into the area.
  • The number of participants hovered around a few hundred throughout the afternoon and evening, but participants swelled into perhaps a thousand or more as the night went on and protesters were split into groups by cops attempting crowd control.
  • The white paper element played a minor role in the protests, and may obscure more than it reveals.
  • For all the limitations of the protests, it is significant that large numbers of people did get involved in some form of collective resistance and that this resistance was, in measured ways, successful.
  • The protests adopted a novel tactic in information sharing, where protestors would airdrop relevant material about police presence and crowds to those nearby.
  • The police followed an interesting division of labour, often using security guards to deal with protests, with security guards often on the frontlines in the most aggressive situations.[4]
  • Protest demographics:
    • handful of Sunday’s protesters were angry young people who had been present the day before and witnessed the police crackdown. Some of them stood at the front lines against cops and led chants. They had come with the intent to protest.
    • The majority of protesters were young, well-to-do, media-literate people in their 20s and 30s, at least some of whom had access to VPNs. This stratum is similar in nature to the other dozen or so student and urban elite protests that took place at college campuses, or in Beijing’s Liangmahe area on the same weekend.
    • A considerable minority of protesters were passersby and neighborhood locals who might not have had the same media access, but joined in, in one form or another, throughout the events of the night.
This photo and the header were taken at the protest on November 27. Note the delivery worker with the blue helmet between the cop cars. The ambiguity as to whether many of those present were participating, gawking, or just trying to push through the crowd to get back to work was a prominent feature of the protests in Shanghai and Beijing noted by John and other observers (perhaps less so in other cities).

Part one: Shanghai covid policy, lockdown, and aftermath

Chuǎng: What’s the relevant starting point for understanding what happened in Shanghai on the weekend following the Ürümchi fire (on Thursday,, November 24th)? Is it a question of a few days, a few weeks, or several months, in terms of what made these protests happen?

John:  I think one thing that was really important was the lockdown in the spring, and the post-lockdown changes.

Prior to the spring lockdown, Shanghai was in a better place than most of the world for covid, because you didn’t really have to care about it. It was only because of my job, which is in another city, that I would have to get covid tests. So, I would mostly work from home, and go there once or twice a week. Otherwise, covid just didn’t matter much. Relatively few people were getting tests – some people were required to test because there was a case near them, or for job requirements, but things started ramping up in February and March.

C: The Shanghai situation before February sounds pretty exceptional compared to other big cities like Beijing. For a long time, most people, especially people working in food services or delivery drivers, or just working-class people in general, would have to get a test every 72 hours or so just to show up at work. Was there nothing like that in Shanghai?

J: I don’t think so, partly because for a long time it was relatively hard to get a test in Shanghai, and it was not cheap. Tests were administered to communities on a sporadic basis, but if you needed one for employment reasons, you would have to pay 40 RMB at a hospital.

Basically, covid was not a major part of life until about February 2022. In February, things started to feel nervous. There were rumors like “oh, this building got locked down”, or “oh, these people were taken away to quarantine”. It was also around this time that construction started on quarantine facilities, and hotels around me started being turned into quarantine areas. So, part of the question we are asking is why did this protest happen now? Why didn’t it happen before? I think one important reason is that ‘zero covid’ as experienced by actual people changed really dramatically around February-March, at least in Shanghai. There is also a layer of biological change, which we could come back to at some point. The virus that was spreading was the Omicron variant, instead of earlier variants, which means it’s harder to tamp down, and local governments would need more drastic quarantine measures to stop the spread.

But I think that’s an important turning point, because that was when more people started getting infected. There was rising worry early in 2022, but in April and May the city was entirely locked down. I was locked down for two months. Other people were locked down for closer to three. I think that experience is one root of people’s willingness to protest.

I think the other side is the 20th party congress, and Xi officially beginning another term is also important. I think the changing covid policy created a subset of people that’s actually relatively small as a percentage but still numerically large enough to have some mass in the street, who are pissed about policy and want to change it — and there’s a lot of people behind them who are frustrated. But I think that the 20th party congress is actually another proximate cause.

C: I think we might ask though, “who really cares about the 20th party congress?” There’s an idea that those who care about events like the party congress are limited to a few subsections of the population who keep an eye on politics and policy, equivalent to people who read the New York Times in the United States. It’s hard to say what that might mean here in Shanghai. Would it be 5 percent, or 10 percent of the population? Perhaps the party congress is something that gets talked about in some office building, or among retirees hanging out in the park, but not so much among say delivery drivers, for example.

J: I think a lot of people in white-collar office jobs don’t really talk about it either. But I think there is a lot of online discussion, and chat groups, and some sort of simmering discontent in certain circles.

But to go back to the spring lockdown — I won’t talk about the lockdown in depth, but I think there are basically two important outcomes of this shared experience. The first, is, there actually were quite large numbers of people who were involved in some form of collective resistance at the time. To my understanding, I think that this resistance was often “successful”, at least in some ways. In my compound, there are lots of upper-middle class people, people who, like you say, would read the New York Times — actually, probably full of people who actually do read the New York Times. On one night, there were all these posters appearing on WeChat that looked like they were advertising a party, like as if you were going to advertise a club night — bright colors, big block text. And they basically say “This is intolerable! Everybody bang your pots for one hour between 7 and 8 pm tonight”. These were being reposted in my building group chat, compound group chat, and by other friends who live in the same jiedao [subdistrict]. People were talking in chats like they didn’t know what was gonna happen, and I think our compound didn’t start it, but we actually heard, from several compounds over, the sound of banging pots. And people were like “hell yeah, let’s join in”, because we had been locked in our apartments for a month or more at that point.

To be clear, this was not people who were going hungry, but who were angry about the possibility of going hungry. Our compound had lots of food, and we were in a downtown area that was relatively well supplied. However, if it were the case that we had to rely completely on the resources that the juweihui  [residential committee] gave us, we would not have eaten well, and a lot of people I know were in much worse situations. There were a lot of people who were hungry.

C: It also demonstrates that the authorities can’t take care of you. They say they’ll be there for you, and they obviously can’t.

J: No, they absolutely couldn’t take care of us. The attitude that I felt from the people I saw online and those that I talked to was a feeling of “The government should be able to do this.” Personally, I don’t think the government could do it. Some people have the feeling that the government should just be able to provide for everyone, that would be what the state should do, and I just don’t think that the state could do that if they wanted to. I think they tried hard, and did the best they could, but they could not. You just can’t do that.

So everyone banged pots, and kids played with lasers, shining them out of windows, and some people yelled things out windows, but not very much or in any organized way. And what was amazing was that about 4 hours later, the official WeChat account of our local jiedao [subdistrict government] puts up a post that’s like “Good news everyone! Just so you know, we’ll be delivering food tomorrow afternoon!” And maybe they had planned it before, but it definitely felt like, we banged pots just a little bit, and it was literally only from 7-8 pm, and everyone stopped at 8pm, and now we’re going to get a food package.[5]

C: I mean, nobody wants to be an asshole.

J: Nobody wants to be an asshole. But they gave us food afterwards! That said, I do think most people who tried to prevent themselves or their neighbors from being transported to quarantine failed, except for some isolated examples – and there was a lot of information circulating, from audio recordings of people debating with police at their doors to guides about how to negotiate.

C: This is a theme that we might want to come back to. There is an experience, and a general knowledge, that if you make a fuss, it works. I think that we’ve seen that over and over again, especially when we’ve watched all the other local protests of whatever size, if someone has a protest at their shequ [“community” or “neighborhood” branch of the subdistrict government] that’s large enough, some official will inevitably show up on site. Because it’s their job. How many videos do we have of major protests occurring, and then within hours, you see some guy standing on a box facing the crowd saying “we’re gonna fix this! Everyone get back in your homes!” and everyone either says “Fuck you!” or “We’re not gonna wait any longer!” It seems pretty clear that if you do have a massive protest, it’s some official’s responsibility to fix it.

J: I know that there were all kinds of protests that happened all across Shanghai. They happened in different ways in different places. I saw videos of entire xiaoqu [residential compounds] yelling shabi gongchandang 傻逼共产党 [“Communist Party, stupid cunts!”] out the window.

Besides the first factor of the lockdown itself, the second important factor is how, after we were let out, the whole city was basically traumatized until about September. At least, this was my experience. Part of that is just a change in the seasons — it was a really exceptionally hot summer, and there were a lot of days where the temperature didn’t drop below 30C (85F). A lot of people who could stayed inside. We were let out in May, so we lost the nice cool days of spring, and then the second half of June all through July and August were insufferably hot. People stayed inside partly because we were traumatized about going out, and partly because it was too hot. For me and many people around me, the city didn’t feel real for those three summer months. Things didn’t start to feel normal again until September. Partly, I think everyone was just worried — there was a feeling that they could do this again to us at any moment. So we have to worry, we have to pay attention, we have to reduce how much we go out.

At the same time, there was still low-level discontent with how the government handled the lockdown. Most people seem to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they should have done better, and that they could have done better. This applies both to the Shanghai government mishandling things like food, and to the central government as well: A lot of the harsher measures during the lockdown period that worried everyone, like transporting entire buildings and moving people out of entire xiaoqu, or rumors of policies where entire healthy compounds would be transported to “quarantine” housing in Suzhou because of 4-5 positive cases. I think a lot of people actually blamed that stuff on the central government, because after [Vice-Premier] Sun Chunlan was sent here, things got worse in terms of people’s actual experience. And from the standpoint of the party’s concept of public health, that makes sense, for them, because after we had been locked down for the first month, case numbers were still rising. You could not have gotten cases back down to zero, which they apparently did, without the incredibly harsh measures. Of course there are also all of the stories of people dying [because they were] unable to access hospitals [to treat conditions other than covid], hunger, and other horrors. People blamed both the local government and the central government for this.

And then, after we are released, there is this feeling that — remember at this point that hundreds of thousands of people in Shanghai have now had covid. And according to official figures none of them have died. Perhaps they released news that one person had died. But I think on purpose, the official line was “nobody is dying of covid” in Shanghai, because otherwise that looks really bad.[6] So a lot of people got it, nobody died, and so after the lockdown it became clear to many people that the government response is scarier than the virus. I don’t think that that is universal — a lot of old people were, for good reason, afraid of the virus. I think a lot of young people who are xiaofenhong 小粉红 [young cyber-nationalists known as “Little Pinks”] or read the news and take it seriously are afraid of the virus. But I think a considerable number of people, particularly people in their 20s-40s said, “What I’m really afraid of is the policy, not the virus.” And that became sort of common knowledge in Shanghai.

So I think if we look for the common roots of the recent Shanghai protests, it’s that process. People lost a lot of confidence in the government, and were mad at both central and local covid policy. There’s this almost loss of face even, where people would think “this is Shanghai. We’re not supposed to be like this.” This is also associated with class, of course, like rich Shanghainese who feel “why can’t we manage this better?”

I can’t judge exactly how generalized that sentiment is, but I do feel that people generally felt that the Shanghai government was going to do a good job, and was going to be “rational and scientific” according to their own interpretation. That is, that the local government was taking rational and scientific measures that weren’t totally arresting spread, but were preventing death and keeping people safe. And then Sun Chunlan comes in and, metaphorically, killed everybody’s uncle with what people saw as overly broad, irrational, unscientific policy that comes down from the central government. Of course this is hyperbole, but there was a sense that people – particularly elderly people or those who needed medical care for non-covid issues – were being made extremely vulnerable by the state. There was a viral WeChat post that was a eulogy from a famous economist, where he detailed the experience of his mother running out of medication, needing to go to the hospital, finally being able to be transported to the hospital, but ultimately being refused entry. She had covid tests, but the hospital says you need another one, this is just the rules. As he described it, the ambulance left to go pick someone else up, and his mother died outside on the sidewalk. This doesn’t get deleted because he’s a famous professor and he didn’t get combative or say “this government is horrible”, he just told the story of what happened to his mom. I think a lot of people felt, “this guy has so much power and influence and connections, and even his parent can die on the sidewalk. What about me and my family? This could easily happen to my family members.” That was one viral story, but there were many others, creating a generalized atmosphere of fear based more on state policy than the reality of the virus.

I think the number of people who actually died on the streets is probably relatively small, dozens to hundreds, but we can’t know. I don’t know if the Shanghai government would have done the same thing, but the harsher measures were generally associated with the central government, and Sun Chunlan coming to town.

Finally, beyond these two factors, there is also a relatively more conspiracy-driven narrative that Xi cares about power and zero-covid, and doesn’t really care about the economy because he’s a hardcore “communist”––but that there are others inside the central level like [Premier] Li Keqiang, who really do care about the economy. Prior to lockdown and in the first month before Sun Chunlan arrived in Shanghai, there were rumors in WeChat groups that the Shanghai outbreak was explicitly being allowed to happen by people in the Shanghai city government, in order to put egg on Xi’s face, and make it impossible for him to contain the virus.

I think all of these things play into the creation of a common feeling among a segment of the population that central government covid policy is bad, we don’t like it, and we are more worried about the results of policy than the virus. And also, fuck Xi Jinping, who’s pushing this policy for political reasons — we like people like Li Keqiang who care about the economy. After all, we care about the economy. This is talking about, you know, the people you described as New York Times readers here in Shanghai — the people hanging out in Starbucks looking at candlestick charts for their stock portfolio, or on the phone doing real estate deals. All these people are reading news, and have ideas about this stuff, thinking “hey, I want the line to go up — it’s going down!”

This context is really important, in my mind, to explaining the transformation of a crowd of people in Shanghai around Ürümchi Road who look like they’re mostly there to see what’s going on into a coherent group chanting “Xi Jinping step down”. In terms of the origins of the Shanghai protests, I think this is actually much more important than the Zhengzhou Foxconn outbreak and protests, or the Guangzhou lockdown protests, and more important than the prospect of policy loosening from the “20 Measures” on Improving COVID Control” [a circular released by the central government on November 11] If anything, I think people felt like the 20 Measures were a sign that things were going in the right direction, and could be pushed more, but I don’t think the mattered much to people’s actual experience here. I think at this point, my take is that the fire in Ürümchi was an excuse, or a reason to gather people, but the sentiment that led to the protest was not caused by the fire specifically.

Part two: The Ürümchi fire, online and offline protest

C: Why don’t we talk about the protest itself, and what happened on those days? Where should we begin? Thursday night was the fire in Ürümchi – perhaps we should talk a little bit about why that blew up on WeChat. It’s clearly a horrible accident, but then horrible accidents happen all the time. Just a few weeks before the Xinjiang fire, more than three dozen workers died in a fire in Henan, the worst industrial fire in a decade, basically, and nobody really cared. The gates of the factory were blocked off not only by products, but it seems also by retaining walls that may very well have been the kind put up everywhere as covid control measures. It’s good that people were aware of the long lockdown in Xinjiang, which had been going on for around 100 days before the fire, but why exactly did it blow up with people in Shanghai? Where exactly did you see it, and why?

J: It’s unclear, actually, and I don’t have a very good answer. Nobody I knew talked about the Henan fire. It came on my radar via Twitter actually, and people that repost a lot of stuff from the Chinese internet to Twitter. After it happened, though, on WeChat I could see more in my pengyouquan [“Moments” social media feed] though I’m not sure how it became such a big piece of news.

If I had to guess, I think the first part is the protests in Ürümchi. So far, I’ve seen a lot less reporting on them, including just a few pictures and video, and the viral photo of someone holding the national flag. And then there’s a video of the totally Robo Cop-ed out Ürümchi riot cop kicking somebody. I think a major problem was that the local government lied, essentially. One viral video showed a city government representative saying something like “We’ve investigated. It was a fire, it was bad, people died, but the building was open and they could have left.” And early on there were questions about how many people actually died.[7]

At the same time, Ürümchi had also been locked down for a long time. But really, this is just my impression from what I could piece together online.

C: Ok, so putting aside issues of ethnicity or policing, we can be clear from the top that the most important factor is that Ürümchi had been under lockdown for a very long time. So just as if Shanghai was under lockdown in the spring, and thousands of people flooded out onto the street because of a deadly fire, it would be clear that this was an anti-lockdown protest. Right? 

J: There was a fire while Shanghai was locked down actually, and I don’t think anyone died, but it was pretty viral, with discussion about how this could happen to anybody. Earlier on, there was a lot of stuff about the September earthquake in Sichuan. For example, there were videos circulating from the ground in the middle of tall apartment buildings, and one of the buildings had kind of separated into two columns – it didn’t fall over, but there’s a gap in the middle, and everyone was freaking out, because it’s obviously incredibly unsafe. The area was under lockdown, and there was an actual fight about whether people should get to leave or not. So there is precedent for these kind of disasters.

But Ürümchi had been locked down for 100 days. I had no idea, I think lots of people didn’t really have any idea either. I think one thing the propaganda apparatus has done a really good job of is making sure that information about lockdowns, like what cities are locked down, and for how long, is incredibly localized. I feel like a lot of the weiwen 维稳 [repressive maintenance of social stability] architecture is about preventing the spread of unstable information across provinces. We thought about this during the Shanghai protests that occurred during our lockdown in the spring. When protests happened, I was messaging with people in other places to ask, “does your Wechat Moments feed show the same stuff?” You could see this with the Siyue zhi sheng 四月之声 [“Voices of April”] video during lockdown – my whole pengyouquan was nothing but that video for 48 hours but there was a real question of whether that was able to leak out into other parts of the country.

Censors were overwhelmed in a similar way in late November. Parallel to the on-the-ground protests on the 25th, 26th and 27th, there was a lot of online sort of anger, and analysis, and posting about it, followed by deletions and censorship. After articles about what happened in Ürümchi were deleted, there was a wave of ironic online posts that are in article format that contain only the characters xingxingxing 行行行 [“sure, sure, sure”] or haohaohao 好好好 [“fine, fine, fine” repeated hundreds of times]. And the idea is, “well, if this is the only thing you’ll let me say, then here you go — but everybody knows what I really wanna say, which is ‘fuck you.'” And those were also censored, but not as quickly, because they don’t actually have content.

So this is part of what happened as a backdrop to what people have been calling the White Paper Movement. A lot of things are happening simultaneously: One of the slogans that was on someone’s paper, for example, was 你们都知道我想说什么 [“You all know what I want to say”], and it’s this idea that there is a shared set of ideas that are unsharable, that you can’t make public. I think that’s developing online and offline in the student protests, but also in these WeChat sharing structures.

In terms of “why now?”, this has obviously happened before, and there are plenty of examples, from the Guizhou bus crash carrying people for pandemic control to big public disasters in the past decades, like maybe the earlier disaster of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the Wenzhou high speed rail crash in 2011, and others — there has always been censorship aimed at preventing these things from turning into points for protest. In terms of why this is happening now, I think one thing to look at is what people were thinking at the time of the [“Voices of April”] video. This was, from what I’ve seen, the largest most coordinated online protest, overwhelming censors, and it persisted for a long time. In Shanghai specifically, it was basically just people sending and remixing this video, and it getting taken down, like cat and mouse censorship games. […]

C: Yes, we did some tests at the time to see whether we, outside Shanghai and elsewhere in China, could see the things you were posting on WeChat in your pengyouquan and we had some problems.[8]

J: Yes. I think that the state has done a good job of keeping it relatively unclear. I remember when Ruili [the main border crossing between Yunnan province and Myanmar] was on lockdown, and I felt that there were just droplets of information leaking out, of people saying “save Ruili! We are fucked!”[9] But then there was no further information — it was totally unclear. I think if you went directly to research the information, you could find it, but you would have to know to look for it first. I think it was the same thing with Ürümchi.

Meme in which social media is represented as a mother playing in a pool with happy baby Shanghai while Jilin is distressed and drowning. Ruili is a skeleton resting on the seafloor.

So, 100 days of lockdown, then the fire happens, and there’s a rumor that the building was locked. In the lockdown in Shanghai, in a lot of cases, you could still walk out of the building if you wanted to – there were no people physically keeping you in with barriers, and it became an online scandal when some people’s doors were physically blocked or welded shut. But with the Ürümchi fire, it was said that not only could the people inside not leave, but that the fire department couldn’t get in. But the city government responded that the door was open, and that the people didn’t leave. The city government basically blamed the victims, and people got really mad.

There was a document that came out, perhaps on Friday [November 25th], that the Xinjiang government said “By the way, we have removed all of these places from the list of high-risk areas”, meaning that they can be removed from lockdown. And so lockdown in the city of Ürümchi essentially ended after the protest. I think that’s another important piece.

It’s unclear how many people around the country put this together at the time, but if you were looking, you could at least say “Wow. They had a riot. And then they weren’t locked down anymore. They were locked down for 100 days, and it ended the day after they rioted.”

C: Yes, and the average person knows that, despite what the state might say. The official response will basically never say that they have made some major change in response to a protest, but it does happen all the time and many people know that, if you make a fuss, it will invoke some kind of response.[10]

J: Yeah. So to recap: there was a major protest in Ürümchi on Friday, the day after the fire. On Saturday afternoon, there were a number of other protests on university campuses, and on Saturday evening in Shanghai there was an attempt by a small number of young people to hold a vigil on Wulumuqi Road.

I get the impression that the vigil was mostly young people, and it started relatively late, maybe around 9pm. A few people brought flowers, and candles, and they had a relatively successful vigil for a couple of hours on this street corner, which I think was Wulumuqi Road and Anfu Road. The police got there relatively quickly and blocked the road — this is unclear, and I wasn’t there — but the vigil continued for a long time, until they were dispersed around 3am.

From video I’ve seen, it seems like it was a quiet vigil at the start, but then at some point people started yelling slogans. At some point, someone yelled “Xi Jinping, xiatai [step down]!” and there was a divide in the crowd about how they felt about that. I think some people were definitely there for the memorial, and it wasn’t a large number of people. Other people were there just because it was an event, a happening in the middle of a famous shopping district. This is pretty clear from the interview on Bumingbai [the “I Don’t Understand” podcast] done with the people who were there the first night.

I don’t have a good sense of how it ended that night. From the interview, it sounds like at around 3 or 4am the police were kind of tired and angry, just pushing people down the road, where they eventually left. I think it was after the police started being more aggressive and surrounding the group that people started chanting, though that too is unclear.

Part three: The second day of protests in Shanghai

J: I wasn’t aware of the vigil and protest until Sunday morning. I think I saw it on Twitter first, actually, but when I looked at my WeChat feed, it was full of protest videos that were surprisingly aggressive. I think at that point it was combination of protest videos, including those with anti-Xi slogans, and explainers formatted as WeChat articles, with titles like “why did this happen last night?” People were posting stuff like “What happened during the Ürümchi fire”, “Remember the Ürümchi fire”, and stuff like that.

I spent all morning looking through this material, and sometime in the afternoon I saw a tweet from a journalist who is in Shanghai that says “people are at Wulumuqi Road again”, sharing a video of a man in a brown coat who was arrested by plainclothes cops while holding flowers. He looked like he was kind of asking for a confrontation with the police, calling the cops idiots and saying they dared not to arrest him.

At the time, I wanted to see what was going on, basically, so I got in touch with a friend and we went down together. The timing isn’t really clear, but we got there a couple hours after that first arrest, which was around 3pm. At that point, we were standing in what felt like a crowd of gawkers looking at the police. Most of the crowd seemed to be wealthy young people, in the middle of a shopping district that would normally have wealthy young people anyway — and quite a few foreigners, talking about going to get burgers later on. It’s Sunday, people are out walking their dogs, and taking their kids around, people are out shopping, some people are carrying name-brand shopping bags. […] I remember standing next to a couple of young people who were greeting each other like “Oh, hey, how are you? What’s going on here? Were you here last night? Oh yeah, I was here, I saw my friend so and so get stepped on by a cop! The cops stepped on her hand! It was crazy!” The attitude wasn’t like “Fuck the cops!”, it was more like “Whoa, that’s crazy! What the hell? Really?”

At that point the cops had blocked off a north-south two block area, but it was unclear who was there to protest, or if the gathering was anything like a protest at all. A lot of people were there to gawk, and I guess that was true for me, too. By about sunset, I think there were at least four police positions. They were blocking off the top, the north end of Wulumuqi Road, the two entries on Anfu Road, and the next block south on Wulumuqi Rd.

Map of Wulumuqi Road from Christopher Connery’s excellent article on the protests and the area’s history: “Wulumuqi Road” (Made in China Journal, 8 December 2022)

So we start in the middle. People are just kind of hanging out. So because Wulumuqi Road is a long street running north-south, if you’re on a bike or scooter, it’s one of the best ways to go north-south through that part of the city, and a lot of delivery guys and people riding home from work on scooters are kind of trying to get through, but a lot of them are also stopping to gawk, because it’s interesting. Because they blocked off the north-south road, immediately south of the police blockade on Wulumuqi Road basically becomes a pedestrian street then, and people are just milling about in the empty street.

But more and more people keep coming, mostly on foot. By about 5:30, it felt like somebody decided to basically tests the waters. Up until that point, it was really unclear whether what was happening was a protest, a memorial, or a large group of shoppers and commuters gawking at the police. And so somebody tests the waters and sings the national anthem.  Maybe 20-30 people join in, and it sounds pretty bad, but suddenly it’s really clear that what’s happening is a protest. I think it’s interesting that there were a few attempts to have it be a memorial, later on in the night. Some people set up flowers and candles, kind of behind the protest line. Then later on, when we were wandering around, we saw flowers and candles and masks with messages written on them written on the sidewalk. I think there was just one guy setting them up, and then there were cops following him a block behind, just picking them up after him. But I think for most people who were there, it was a protest, and this got more clear as the night went on.

Memorials placed along quiet streets around the protest zone while crowds were being dispersed.

C: Was it at all clear how many people knew what the white paper was at that point, as it had only been around for a few days?

J: That’s a good question, and of course I can’t say for sure, I think a bunch did, probably a majority but my sense was maybe around 50 percent. At that point, early on, it was a real question to me. I still was in this mode, at that point, wondering “are people here to gawk, or are people here to protest?” And I don’t think everyone there knew the answer for themselves at that point.

There were maybe 15-20 people at the front of the police line who were all grouped together, and were clearly there to protest. It’s possible that some of them had been there the previous night, or were friends of people who had been there the previous night, were friends of those people that had been arrested.

So a bit after the national anthem, the police started to use a loud speaker, that was absolutely not like the crowd dispersal speakers that they use in Europe or the US or elsewhere, it was like a little hand-held mic. I couldn’t even really hear what was said over the crowd, but it was basically saying something like “this is an illegal gathering.” Then people started to chant stuff, the first and loudest of which was fangren 放人 [“Let them go” or “Release the prisoners”]. This is another reason why I feel like that day’s protest was not really just about the people that died in Ürümchi, or at least not mostly about this. To be honest, this felt more like an excuse, or more charitably a sentiment that was on everyone’s mind, but not the most pressing issue. The slogans that got the loudest were about arrests and covid policy generally, fangren and jiefeng 解封 [“End the lockdown(s)”], which is kind of funny because Shanghai was not locked down or anything at the time. To some extent, I think this makes it explicitly political: Release the prisoners and end this covid policy.

After a few more rounds of the national anthem and a less successful attempt at the Internationale and some chanting, people were more or less quietly facing the police line. But at this point, I think it was established that what was going to happen was a protest, essentially — that some large percentage of the 200-300 people who were there are there to protest, or at least don’t want to leave if that’s what happened. But at the same time, it felt like neither the police nor the protesters were sure about their role, or about what to do next.  At this point, my friend and I checked out the edges of the group, figured that if the police tried to set up a kettle, they’d fail, and we could get out: At the beginning, the police were only holding the entry to Wulumuqi Road, but not holding the intersection at all, and there was no sign of reinforcements coming from behind the protest group.

During this whole time, there’s one individual traffic cop who’s just inside with the protesters, and helping cars get through. This was true throughout the protest, that there were cops in the same space as the protesters and apart from police lines, not threatening the protestors or being threatened by them. Most were traffic cops, and so they were from a different unit or department than those sent to respond to the gathering. I think they were there just doing their job, and probably didn’t even know the other team.

After about 30 minutes, a new group of cops does make it around from the south, and the cops finally took the whole intersection. At this point the mood changes, and more people start figuring out how to get away from the new police lines. At the same time, the crowd gets split in half, as half of the people go west and the other half go east. Over the course of that 45 minutes, a large group of protesters was pushed one block east on the narrow road toward Changshu Road, a much wider street. There also happens to be a subway stop right there, which was closed down at some point. I didn’t know that until later, when I saw pictures of handwritten signs written over the locked doors declaring that the station was “temporarily closed.”

It took a long time for the police to move down the street — there weren’t physical confrontations at this point, but people in the crowd kept leading chants, and over the course of that one-block push, the feeling solidified that, “Oh, we are protesters, and they are cops”. There was one event that I think solidified this in particular — as the crowd is moving away from the police line, facing them and filming, a man stops short, turns around to face the crowd with his back to the police, and yells something that ends with “Xi Jinping, xiatai!” before being swallowed up by the cops. It felt like a sacrifice: He could have been in the middle of the crowd and yelled that, but he didn’t, and that was the first time I heard that kind of slogan on that night. It might have been yelled earlier, but I didn’t hear it. After he got taken away, that did energize people. It was the first visible arrest of that moment. Honestly, it felt like he had sacrificed himself in this really intense way. I think a lot of people saw this, and respected him. Then, later on, as they were marching down, you did hear more aggressive, more political chants, including some of the slogans from the Sitong Bridge banner. People came up with new chants later, like “不要核酸码,不要场所码” [“No more covid test codes, no more location codes”]. Another one I heard was “让人民说话,天不会塌下来” [“Let the people speak, the sky won’t fall”], which is a quotation from Mao Zedong, along with a few other chants related to free speech.

C: It seems like there was an interesting mix of chants. Some, as you say, come straight from Mao, while some come from the Sitong Bridge banners, and then there were some slogans that showed up on signs in other protests that sounded like innocuous liberal platitudes about free speech, that could have come out of a speech by Nancy Pelosi or something. What do you think? Any more examples come to mind?

J: There was one incident where three guys showed up, they were standing around the outside of the protest at a pretty quiet moment. One says “Wow, that was crazy”, and another one goes to the front and yells “We want a real constitution!” and people cheer, and then another runs to the front and says “我们要法治社会” [“We want a society governed by the rule of law”], or whatever, followed by cheers. I think there were other chants yelling “言论自由” [“freedom of speech”] and other things that are in the [Chinese] constitution.

There were a few more active people in the protest, who were there to protest in the beginning. I think they were the ones who were leading a lot of chants, including chants that were directly coming from the bridge banner: 不要核酸要吃饭,不要封控要自由 [“We want food not covid tests, we want freedom not lockdowns”], etc. There’s a string of phrases there, and the last one is 罢免独裁国贼习近平 [“Impeach the treasonous dictator Xi Jinping”]. In my memory, it was mostly a woman leading the chants, but each time they get to the end and she says something like 不要獨裁习近平 [“We don’t want the dictator Xi Jinping”], everybody starts cheering and clapping without repeating it, as if either it’s the end of the chant, or as if they support it. Whatever the case, the 150 people or so that are being pushed down the street are like “I’m not repeating that… maybe I believe it, but I’m not repeating it”.

After the police pushed the group to the end of the street, people continued to chant slogans and stand around. Honestly, it got boring, but people keep coming, entering and leaving the crowd relatively freely. People walking by would also just join in. By this time it’s maybe 6:30 or 7pm. People are walking by and asking what was going on. Delivery riders are having to think whether they can make it through the police line to do their pick up. At one point, there’s a delivery driver who actually drives his bike in between the cops and the protesters, and stands up on his bike, and starts yelling some shit, and he’s actually really funny. He’s basically doing stand-up bits, but the people next to me were talking about how he must be a plant, sent to defuse the situation. But I think this was just one of those bizarre moments, and he was just a funny dude who was just taking the opportunity to like, do some stand up, and just leaves.

Photo from Shanghai protests of delivery worker pushing through the crowd, saying “Let me by everybody, my order’s gonna be late!” This circulated among observers commenting that this illustrated bourgeois character of these particular protests, or how alienated some workers were by what was going on.

After the crowd got divided, the whole area around Wulumuqi Road was blocked off on all sides, and we could tell from our phone map programs that there were roadblocks being put up, so we thought we would go take a look at the other road blocks, and went to check out another intersection. When we got there, there was bigger crowd, but nobody was chanting slogans, and the crowd was more spread out. There was a bus directly behind the police lines, and we were pretty sure the police were preparing these rental busses to take everyone away for mass arrests. That was also the first time that we saw the police start to be really aggressive, around perhaps 7:30/8:00pm.

Comment page on a roadblock – 266 people online, comments saying “Take a picture if you’re close by”, “A limitless horizon to the front, a limitless horizon to the back,” “Reason for the traffic jam is unclear” and “Let’s go guys”.

Screenshot showing road closures on a mapping app.

There were some slogans chanted, but things also got a bit chaotic. The protest was spilling over around the several different streets that converge in the area. We got there right as the cops were trying to take an intersection, with support from private security guards who seemed to have just shown up.

The scene was a bit chaotic, though. A woman in her 30s or 40s on a scooter was yelling at the protesters, wanting them to leave. There was an old woman hanging around the edges of the group muttering under her breath that there is definitely a covid case in this crowd, and everyone should start to go home. At some point we saw a squad of police, organized as a snatch squad, grab someone pretty close to us, so we decided to leave and check out other intersections.

On the west side of the road, one intersection had been cleared, with only a few cops guarding it and small groups of young people walking around in twos or threes, but at another intersection further up we ran into a crowd of people who were being pushed down the road. The police were using more intense tactics at this time, and shining lights at the crowd to blind cellphones, I think.

Earlier, police pushes were slowed down by delivery drivers trying to go down the road — a driver would move through the crowd, hit the police line, and the cops would have to stop to argue with the driver, and get them to turn back, before they could continue to advance. This time, they had a smarter strategy where they had two cops ahead of the line, walking along with the protesters, who handled the delivery drivers while the main group made sure that the whole crowd moved on.

At this point, I got airdropped videos from a group of 3-4 young, fashionable kids — one of them came up to me and says, “hey, they’re making arrests, be careful,” and airdrops me a video of police jumping on someone. I looked at the person’s screen and they were also air dropping it to maybe 50 other random iPhones. At that point, I figured there might be some sort of underground sharing going on in the crowd, but I wasn’t clued into it.[11]

The whole time, there were a lot of people with cameras, too — not just mobile phones. Point and shoot cameras, mainly, and mini-DV cameras, but not big DSLRs. It wasn’t clear whether people were being really smart about security by not bringing their phone, or if they just thought it was going to be an event worth filming.

The police pushed this crowd down the street for an hour or so as well. This time, they had squads of security guards ahead of the police line, and they were the ones that were being more aggressive, saying “get the fuck out of here! Go home, what are you doing here, go home!” Once the crowd was pushed to another intersection, they split the crowd again. At this point, the police had enough people and momentum pushed down three streets simultaneously, and could occupy the intersection and push out in any direction. At that point we left the protest entirely, but as we were walking away, we saw maybe 20 black SWAT vans driving toward the area we had just left.

C: How did you feel about the protest in Shanghai, versus what you saw about the protests in Beijing, Xi’an or other locations?

J: I think Beijing and Shanghai were quite different from what happened in some other cities such as Wuhan. I think the Beijing and Shanghai protests were in a way linked up, and I think it was the same demographic as well. There were a lot of bystanders who were interested and just got roped in, but I think a lot of the people who showed up were very online, highly media-literate, highly literate in general. Probably a lot of people there had VPNs, I think 100 percent of the main slogan leaders were people who probably had VPNs — not like I asked anybody, but there were conversations I heard in the crowd between mainlanders and Taiwanese, being like “oh you’re from Taiwan, tell us about the elections, we’d like elections”.

There were protests happening simultaneously in Beijing, and other places too. Actually, I was checking on WeChat at the protest, and somebody was reposting something about violent arrests by police of protesters at Xintiandi, in Shanghai, which is another incredibly wealthy shopping district. I couldn’t figure this out, but I scrolled back later, and think one thing that might have happened was a lot of the people who were at the Saturday night protest tried to call for another vigil at Xintiandi, far from the original vigil site, but I think that basically got rolled up by the cops immediately, because there weren’t enough people there. This also gives us a little bit of a sense of what was going on at Wulumuqi Road, which was in some sense spontaneous. It wasn’t the case that someone called a protest, or anything like that — I really think for most people, it was closer to something like “Wow! Did you see what happened on WeChat? I can go down there — I’m gonna get on my bike, or get on the subway and go see what’s happening.”

At the same time, the Beijing protests were located around Liangmahe, which is a fancy part of town and near a lot of embassies. Coincidentally, Wulumuqi Road is also near a lot of consulate buildings, although I don’t know if that was done on purpose or not. The US consulate is just a couple two blocks from the southernmost police blockade. Perhaps that’s why the police response on the southern end of the road was more violent and more intense, because they don’t want people over there — actually that’s quite near the Iranian consulate as well. Somebody else was telling me at the time that there were videos of people at Liangmahe chanting “free the people arrested in Shanghai”.[12] It felt like it was kind of a similar crowd, similar vibe.

C: People are asking, “will this spread? will it continue?” And it seems like the protests themselves don’t have legs, so to speak. But do you think there are particular patterns that will continue in the future, like lockdowns in response to outbreaks that may continue to trigger further protest?

J: We started out talking about the Shanghai lockdown in the spring. I think that for the central government, this is a strong signal that you need to balance your policy, and if you push it, it’s a signal of how far you can push before you get pushback. I think that there has been pushback before, during the spring Shanghai lockdown, and more recently in Guangzhou [where unrest and clashes with police broke out in migrant neighborhoods around November 14], or in the case of Foxconn in October and November — I think that’s there’s been all these different instances of people pushing back against covid policy. But looking at online discussion outside the firewall, I think an idea people are using to talk about the people who attended the protests in Shanghai is something like shehui jingying 社会精英 [“social elite”]. The commentary I was just looking at was saying something like, “actually, revolutions are not started by the underclass who is unhappy. They are started by an elite class who is no longer able to rationalize what’s going on.” I can’t make a strong prediction myself, but I do think that some people see this kind of elite pushback as the future.

C: I can’t help but feel that if I were the big guy [i.e. Xi Jinping], looking at all that’s going on around me, and Jiang Zemin just so happens to die right then, and I happen to be superstitious, I would definitely read all of these things as bad omens.

J: Oh it’s hella inauspicious! Do you know where Jiang died? It was at Huashan Hospital, the best hospital in Shanghai, which is just a few blocks from the protest.

C: So basically, if Jiang had opened the window, he could probably have heard the chants of “Xi Jinping, step down!” as he lay there on his deathbed.

J: Yes. [Both laugh] So, if we’re thinking of what’s going on, I think there’s like an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and anger that causes protests that the state structure is relatively effective and experienced in placating or repressing. I think what this is, is a poking through of elites who have better access to communication technology and VPNs, better access to organizing, more money, more legal awareness, and I think that if I were the big guy, I would say, “Ok, I probably do have to pull back, I probably cannot keep doing this, because at some point these people are gonna get connected to internal high-level party people.”

C: But, returning to the question of “why now?” What makes this different, really? We could just as easily say “it always has been so”. Why now, when it’s already been said before a thousand times through the three years of the pandemic, that business people can’t stand it any more, or the middle class can’t take it anymore, or that the workers are rising up and protesting against covid measures, or hospital workers are going on strike. When housing prices started to fall, or when Evergrande ate shit, all of these people have connections. All of these elites already have their connections, and surely all the party elite also have their opinions. They’ve always had dissatisfaction. Everyone has been dissatisfied, in different ways.

J: Well, there are many layers. I think there is dissatisfaction with covid policy in general, but there is also this underlying sense of a change in direction. For example, I was talking with a Russian expat here about people like Navalny, and I think there is some overlap in attitude of people who, like a lot of Navalny fans, don’t really have politics. Their politics are “I’d like to be a normal country. Can we just be a normal country?” I think that one positive way that people have interpreted Zhongguo meng 中国梦 [“The Chinese Dream”] and 社会主义核心价值观 [“The Core Socialist Values”]  is as a statement that “we’re gonna be a normal country”. We’re gonna be civilized, and the world likes us and we are good for the world. I think a lot of [the participants] are people who basically read the New York Times, and want to live in a “normal country”, and who see Xi retaining power as one “not-a-normal-country” thing.

C: Any good conspiracy theory takes?

J: As for the street protest, I may be an unwitting sheep, but I believe that it was spontaneous. I think there was communication among students that created symbols like the “white paper”, which was maybe taken from anti-war protestors in Russia, but maybe it’s just a coincidence.[13] […] But I don’t think there were particular organizers that told everyone to go there.


[1] On the protests and direct actions in Shanghai and other cities during the spring of 2022, see, for example our blog post “Struggling to Survive in Shanghai and Beyond: News Highlights, April 2022.”

[2] The November wave of struggles as a whole are addressed in ‘Three Autumn Revolts: Breaking the Ice on China’s “Anti-Lockdown Movement”’ by Zuoyue. We hope to examine those struggles and the conditions of possibility they reveal in future writings.

[3] “Wulumuqi” is the official name of the road written on the street signs. It is the romanized spelling of the Chinese transliteration of Ürümchi, which when referring to the city in Xinjiang is officially rendered as “Urumqi”—a strange spelling that combines Uyghur and Chinese elements. See “Wulumuqi Road” by Chris Connery (Made in China, December 2022).

[4] On the state’s evolving efforts to incorporate non-state entities such as private security companies into its management of the population, see “Plague Illuminates the Great Unity of All Under Heaven: On the Coming State,” in Social Contagion and other material on microbiological class war in China (Kerr, 2021).

[5] This distribution of resources to calm down unrest is common enough to have led to the phrase 按闹分配, a bastardization of “to each according to their need” that replaces “need” with “noisy complaint.”

[6] As has been the case elsewhere, definitions of what counts as a death due to covid have been flexible and politicised, with the state explicitly minimizing death numbers.

[7] This article describes that briefing.

[8] These problems of posts being blocked for people in other locations were reported by so many WeChat users that state media was forced to address the phenomenon as a “false rumor.” This article on the issue notes that Shanghai internet cops had shut down 30 online groups and punished 23 individuals for spreading rumors. The name of one group was reported to be Sidangqun 死党群 — literally the “Dead Party Group” but implying something more like “the despicable party group.” (让外地看不到上海朋友圈?微信回应, 中工网,23 April 2022.)

[9] See “Life turned upside down in Ruili, China, the world’s strictest zero-Covid city,” SCMP, 23 October 2022.

[10] It’s worth noting that Sun Chunlan’s statements in the days following the protests did indicate a relaxation and change in lockdown policy, albeit without mentioning popular anger.

[11] Apple is reported as having restricted airdrop functionality by time-limiting access to the function in response to its use in China following the Sitong Bridge banner drop, but these updates seemed not to have hit phones by the time of these protests in November 2022. Friends report that random airdropped advertisements still show up on subway rides as of this Spring.

[12] For a detailed Chinese account of the Liangmahe protest, see 北京亮馬河:此刻,我們在這裏就是意義 from Initium, 29 November 2022.

[13] The origin of the blank sheets of white paper became a topic of debate in movement circles that has not yet been resolved, to our knowledge. In early December, for example, images circulated stating that a student at Communication University of China, Nanjing (南京传媒学院) named Li Kangmeng (李康梦) had been arrested on November 30, and that she was “the first person to hold up white paper” (without indication of when she first did this or where she got the idea), but other posts claim to debunk this. Some accounts say the tactic was adopted from the 2019 movement in Hong Kong, while others says it was adopted from anti-war protestors in Russia — who in turn are said to have gotten the idea from a Soviet-era joke.

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