China’s zero-COVID policy prompted hundreds of Chinese citizens to march in the streets in Guangzhou this week after hearing that ongoing lockdowns had been extended.
In videos shared on Chinese social media and later on Twitter, demonstrators were seen tearing down COVID lockdown barriers in the streets and chanting slogans such as “don’t test anymore” and “open up.”
Such protests in China are not unusual, according to Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog organization. Its latest initiative, called China Dissent Monitor (CDM), is a database that tracks the frequency and type of dissent in China.
CDM’s report released this week documented 668 cases of dissent from June to September this year.
Issues that motivated dissent included stalled housing projects, job grievances, and COVID-19, among other reasons.
Most of the events happened offline, such as demonstrations and strikes. Only 5% of the dissent happened online. The report also found the dissent was geographically widespread. The report also noted the documented cases are “likely a drastic underrepresentation of dissent.”
According to the report, sources for the database include news reports, civil society organizations, and social media platforms based in China.
“There were 37 cases of dissent against COVID-19 restrictions, including large street demonstrations and online hashtag movements with hundreds of thousands of posts linked to at least 14 provinces or directly administered cities,” the report said.
“The project prioritizes capturing offline collective action in public spaces, though cases of less public and online dissent are also included to illustrate diversity among dissent actions,” the report said.
Numbers show Chinese continue to speak out
CDM’s data collection began in June 2022 and continued through the 20th Party Congress and the official beginning of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s third term, said Kevin Slaten, project lead for the China Dissent Monitor.
“It could be argued that this period is the height of digital and physical restrictions on dissent, especially if zero-COVID rules are also considered,” Slaten told VOA. “And yet, CDM documented hundreds of offline protest events and some large online dissent events.”
Despite ongoing efforts by China to silence organized protests, according to Slaten, people in China continue to speak out in the virtual and real worlds. However, he said the world outside China may not be aware of attitudes inside China.
“Citizens in China hold diverse views, like most places in the world,” Slaten said. “The one-party regime has used censorship, the Great Firewall, and concerted information operations internationally to paint a picture of Chinese people’s political attitudes for consumption by the rest of the world.”
“Three-fourths of the events (521) CDM documented between June and September were offline group demonstrations, marches, and obstruction of roads or pathways,” the report said.
According to the report, nearly 9,000 people have cumulatively participated in offline dissent.
“Among offline protest cases, 380 (60 percent) were actions of moderate size, with between 10-99 participants,” the report said. “While less frequent, it is notable that there were 47 large-scale events, with 100 to 999 participants.”
Twenty-five percent of dissent events documented by CDM faced mostly violent repression by the Chinese government or non-state actors.
“Companies (64 percent) and local governments (33 percent) are much more likely to be the target of dissent than the central government (3 percent),” the report said.
“The project documented 37 cases that led to some type of concession by the government or a company, such as local governments changing policies after citizens protested,” it said.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests from VOA for a comment on the findings of the report.
Database created to fill information gap
According to the CDM’s report, the database was created because media restrictions and risks in China resulted in an information gap on dissent and protest in the country.
In a 2021 report by The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China on media freedom in the country, the number of foreign journalists forced out by Beijing is growing “due to excessive intimidation or outright expulsions, covering China is increasingly becoming an exercise in remote reporting.”
The report found 99% of the foreign journalists who responded to the survey said the conditions for reporters “did not meet what they considered to be international standards.” These journalists were regularly surveilled on the internet and in the real world in cities including Beijing and Shanghai, according to the report.
According to Slaten, the aim of the China Dissent Monitor is to give voice to the people within China so they can be heard outside of their country.
Wen Hao and Song Ren from VOA Mandarin Service contributed to this report.