Checkpoint on the edge of a neighborhood in Beijing: everyone who wants to enter or leave the neighborhood is checked as part of the zero-covid policy.Image AP

    Less than 24 hours after Xia took part in a demonstration on the banks of the Liangma River in Beijing for the first time in her life, she received a telephone call from the police on Monday evening. They wanted to know what Xia was doing on the Liangma River, and warned her not to participate in illegal gatherings. “The police knocked on some of my friends’ doors,” she says. “I was quite scared.”

    After a weekend of unprecedentedly large demonstrations in China against the zero-covid policy, the protest wave seems to have come to a standstill under pressure from the police. Huge numbers of police officers stood by on Monday and Tuesday at locations of announced demonstrations in Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Shenzhen. They checked passers-by’s phones for foreign apps and VPN technology to avoid censorship. Dozens of arrests were previously made in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Kunming and Chengdu.

    Intimidation also took place behind the scenes. In Beijing, participants in Sunday’s demonstration were called and questioned by police. Given the repressive nature of the Chinese regime, this is reason enough for many young people to keep a low profile. “I think it’s better if I don’t go out this week,” says Xia, 30, a pseudonym for security reasons. ‘I know the surveillance system on the Chinese mainland: every step you take, you see a camera. If there are any other promotions this week, I will not participate. But maybe later.’

    The wave of protests began Friday night, spreading to at least 14 cities and 79 college campuses over the weekend. Demonstrators oppose the zero-covid policy, but are also calling for democracy and freedom of expression, and in some cases even for the departure of leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. The protesters’ symbol is a blank white sheet, an indictment of censorship. Small actions took place on thirteen campuses on Monday, which were usually quickly broken up by the police.

    New calls to demonstrate were heard on Tuesday, but nothing came of it due to the force majeure of the police. In Shanghai, according to AFP news agency, police officers were stationed at all subway stations. Urumqi Street, where the earlier protests took place, has been completely cordoned off with blue fences, and shops and bars in the street have been closed.

    Social pressure as a weapon

    Behind the scenes, repression is also running at full speed. Beijing police contacted some of the demonstrators through their landlords or school directors, a form of social pressure. According to an unconfirmed social media report, government employees were urged to keep their relatives from participating in the protests to avoid negative impact on their careers. This kind of “outsourcing of state repression” is a common way of putting people under pressure in China.

    The Chinese protesters are at enormous risk because they can be easily tracked down by China’s ubiquitous surveillance technology. During the Covid pandemic, this technological control has become even stronger, partly due to the introduction of a health code, a corona app on smartphones. The investigative tools are so advanced that recently someone was even arrested after leaving a critical message on the inside of a toilet door.

    The protesters in Beijing may have been identified with facial recognition. There are cameras everywhere in China, during the demonstrations officers filmed with body cameras, and ‘silents’ mingled with the crowd to photograph faces up close. Chinese people have to have their face scanned to take a train or plane, to take out a telephone subscription and increasingly also to enter their own neighbourhood. Their biometric data is therefore known to the government. Since the covid pandemic, technology has been refined to recognize faces in masks.

    No anonymous SIM cards

    The demonstrators can also be traced based on their phone signal. Since the Covid pandemic, that capacity has been greatly increased: it is possible to identify anyone within 800 meters of an infected person. In addition, there are numerous apps that track location data. Those who came to the protests with a shared bicycle or online taxi service, for example, left traces. Anonymous SIM cards are not available in China, and Chinese technology companies have no choice but to cooperate with the police.

    The covid pandemic gave the Chinese government an excuse to further increase surveillance. For example, a health code was introduced, which must be displayed in numerous places. According to The New York Times can the software behind the health code pass on location data to the police? From research of de Volkskrant revealed that the technology is being misused to restrict the freedom of movement of government critics. For example, their green code is blocked as soon as they enter a train station. The public transport card for bus and metro, one of the last anonymous means of transport in China, was also linked to the health code this year.

    Many young Chinese have never demonstrated before and went to the protests unprepared. After their first experiences with the police, they are now looking through foreign apps and social media for tips on how to avoid surveillance. “My friends share lots of strategies: use a spare phone, try to hide your face,” said Chen, a Chinese journalist who supports the protests. “We share experiences from Hong Kong, and give advice on how to stop the arrest of fellow protesters.”

    Control for foreign apps

    At the same time, the police are stepping up control. In places where protests had been announced, and in major subway stations, police stopped passers-by from checking their phones for foreign apps and material related to the protests. According to instructions from the Shanghai police, leaked in an unconfirmed social media post, the officers must remove the foreign apps and note the identity of the owner. They should also take a photo of the mobile phone, possibly to make it difficult to use a spare phone.

    Chinese state media maintained the zero-covid policy on Tuesday, but called on local governments to soften their implementation and limit the inconvenience to the population. No fences may be placed around neighborhoods in lockdown, and emergency exits may not be closed. Health authorities in the southern province of Guangdong announced that contact persons will now be allowed to complete their quarantine at home, instead of in quarantine centers. A new vaccination campaign for the elderly was also announced.

    Political loss of face

    It remains to be seen whether these announcements are more than cosmetic changes. A large part of the elderly population in China is not or insufficiently vaccinated, and the release or softening of the zero-covid policy could lead to a huge mortality wave, according to experts. For Xi Jinping, who has insisted for almost three years that China’s low number of covid deaths proves the superiority of the socialist system, that would mean political loss of face. A return to strict lockdowns is therefore not inconceivable, despite the many protests.

    It is impossible to predict whether the demonstrators will still dare to take to the streets, in the midst of the police force majeure. “Of course I am worried,” Xia says. ‘I’m not sure if the police will come after me again later, and if they will take more measures against me. But I don’t regret participating. I knew I was at risk, but maybe this was my only chance to demonstrate. It will only get stricter from now on, we will all have a hard time.’

    “Threats to social order,” a Chinese euphemism for protests, will be met with “determination.” This is what Politburo member Chen Wenqing says to state news agency Xinhua after talking with officials of the judiciary and police. It is the first time that the authorities have spoken out about the covid protests, although Wenqing does not explicitly mention them. The report of the meeting reads like a warning that police action will harden.