Rightful Resistance in China’s Protests

Rightful Resistance in China’s Protests

By Giangnan Lu; Image by Foreign Policy

After a fire in Urumqi took ten people’s lives on November 24, protests broke out across China. First in Beijing and Shanghai, then in Nanjing and Guangzhou, people in different cities, especially college students, walked on the streets with flowers and blank papers to mourn the death caused by extreme Covid restrictions that confined people in their homes. Soon, students overseas joined the mass protests. 

Disgruntled sentiment gradually built up after three years of the zero-covid policy. There has been a handful of major crises resulting from unlawful and unethical measures before the fire in Urumqi, including a bus crash in Guizhou that killed 27 residents who had been hustled out for a quarantine1 and workers at Apple supplier factories in Zhenzhou fleeing back home on foot2

While many demanded President Xi, who claimed earlier that he directed the Covid methods3, to step down, alongside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), others in the protesting crowds were desperate to deliver their loyalty to the country and expected more peaceful negotiations with the government. In a video taken in Urumqi when protests first broke out in Xinjiang, residents confronted armed police forces by singing the national anthem, waving the national flag, and chanting the slogan “to serve the people,” which is the duty that every CCP member vowed to. To demand the lifting of the extreme lockdown measures, protesters legitimized their actions by emphasizing their status as Chinese citizens who deserved to be treated like one. 

Infusing protests with patriotism is an effective way to prevent police violence and an immediate crackdown by local governments because patriotic movements have acquiesced, if not encouraged, by the CCP in the past. When people protested against Korean and Japanese companies during China’s past interstate crisis with its neighboring countries, the state newspapers lavished praise on those who defended the country’s sovereignty. For years, the Communist Party insisted that patriotism — loving one’s country — was synonymous with loving the Party.4 Especially under Xi’s administration which emphasized patriotic values and vowed to sweep the corruption within the system, people’s demands seem to echo what the government has been promoting perfectly. Even though, in this case, when people resist current government policies, they try their best to target specific policies implemented by local-level officials instead of the central government. They did not even attempt to criticize past mistakes of public policy measures that have led to enormous economic loss and life loss and to hold policymakers accountable. Instead, they pressed on reminding the CCP of their duty and promise of maintaining a healthy and functioning state that will ensure the livelihood of its people, pressuring the government to commit to their promise to “serve the people.” 

“Rightful resistors normally frame their claims with reference to protections implied in ideologies or conferred by policymakers. Since they often demand little more than scrupulous enforcement of existing commitments, theirs is a defiance based on strict adherence to established values.”5 

Little voice in China’s domestic unrest addressed human rights issues in Xinjiang and treatment towards Uyghur people, which are the red lines that would immediately trigger a state crackdown. Still, the most moderate and constrained demands, not even criticism, can be the reason for the arrest. 

Holding a piece of blank paper or a flower proved to be a crime. Li Kangmeng, the girl who was the first to hold a blank piece of paper in a silent protest at Nanjing Communication University, disappeared from the public.6 

Many participants of the ‘White Paper Movement’ arrested and lost contact 

 A man waving a bouquet on the street of Shanghai was arrested by police in public. Before he was shoved into a police car, he shouted to the crowd gathering for a vigil,  “I’m holding flowers, is that a crime?”  

This is the moment that  the long-running Soviet joke in China became true: 

In this widespread version of the story, a man was arrested in Moscow’s Red Square for holding a white piece of paper in protest. “How can you arrest me?” the man objected. “I didn’t say anything.” “Anyone knows what you’re trying to say,” the policeman replies.7 

In overseas protests, especially those organized by student activists, one of the emphasis was to prove loyalty to the country and decouple foreign influences, especially those from the United States. It is a reasonable worry because international support would potentially agitate the CCP and confirm the concerns about the US as the “black hand” behind social movements that plot to undermine the CCP’s rule through ideological infiltration. 

During the vigil for the Urumqi Fire at the University of Pennsylvania on November 29, students sang The Internationale and Do you hear the people sing, two songs that had origins from global communist revolutions. Later, a student at the vigil cried, “we are the Chinese youth, not foreign forces!” Many protesters are determined to dissolve potential accusations from political elites about their true motivation and potential affiliation with the alleged foreign powers. 

“Arise! ye who refuse to be bond slaves!” After the students sang the national anthem at the vigil, someone in the crowd loudly questioned the appropriateness of choosing the song. Immediately another voice responded, “the song was not written for the CCP! It’s for the people!” 

At the end of the day, attempting to show the rightfulness of movements cannot stop a government that does not need to legitimize its crackdown on dissident voices. Most police arrests do not care for publishing proper names for crimes, let alone putting the arrested activist through a fair trial. When this article was written on December 6, protests in China had fizzled out after the government loosened up Covid measures, including removing negative Covid test reports at public places and reducing the quarantine days required for Covid positive cases. Still, this is an essential political learning process for Chinese people who proved that collective public actions could pressure the government to respond to popular demands. 


I have many things on my mind, far away, connected to the people of the vast country. In silence, I hear the roaring thunder of people.8 


  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/19/china-guizhou-bus-crash-covid/  Deadly Chinese bus crash stirs fury, grief over ‘zero covid’ policy  
  2. https://www.dw.com/en/china-foxconn-workers-take-big-risks-to-flee-covid-lockdown/a-63614470 China: Foxconn workers take big risks to flee COVID lockdown 
  3. http://www.qstheory.cn/laigao/ycjx/2020-03/10/c_1125690803.htm 大国战”疫”,习近平总书记亲自指挥、亲自部署 
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/11/29/world/asia/china-protests-demands.html?searchResultPosition=2 What China’s Protesters Are Calling For 
  5. O’Brien, Kevin J. “Rightful Resistance.” World Politics, vol. 49, no. 1, 1996, pp. 31–55. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25053988. Accessed December 7, 2022. 
  6. https://thebl.com/china/many-participants-of-the-white-paper-movement-arrested-and-lost-contact.html 
  7. https://cn.nytimes.com/opinion/20221201/china-covid-protests-xi-jinping/?utm_source=top10-in-article&utm_medium=articlepage&utm_campaign=web Taking off Xi Jinping’s “Emperor’s New Clothes” 
  8. Poetry created byChinese writer Lu Xun in 1934 

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