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Protesters explain why they demonstrated in China

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mass protests swept across dozens of cities in China over the weekend. Thousands of people gathered to call for the end of COVID controls, and some even voiced broad demands for democratic political reform. They did it in the face of heavy state surveillance and the threat of being arrested. So why did they come out and demonstrate despite the personal risks? NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: To understand the extraordinary unrest in China this week, let's start with one man named Peng Lifa. On October 13, he quietly emailed off a 21-page PDF entitled "A Toolkit For The Removal Of Xi Jinping." Then he went to a Beijing bridge and unfurled two banners. Shocked onlookers recorded these videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

FENG: The banners read, say no to COVID testing, yes to life; no to lockdown, yes to freedom. Peng was quickly arrested and has not been heard from since, but his slogans lived on during this weekend's protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: No to COVID, yes to freedom, these people shout in Beijing. A 23-year-old Beijinger named J.C. was among those inspired by Peng. And when he saw people were gathering on the banks of a river in Beijing on Sunday, he rushed to join.

J C: (Through intepreter) The police cannot arrest all of us. Prisons don't have room for 1.4 billion people.

FENG: We're using only J.C.'s initials, and a voice actor is narrating his interview - a safety measure we're going to take with all protesters interviewed in this piece as China has been trying to identify and arrest demonstrators.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: NPR met him at this protest. He's among a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds in China who have known nothing but the controls of the ruling Communist Party. And as a teenager, he was OK with that because China was prosperous even if it wasn't free. Then the pandemic came and broke that social contract. J.C. works in the music and film industry. It's been decimated by China's COVID controls.

J C: (Through interpreter) The entire industry is close to failing, especially Beijing. No one invests in the entertainment industry anymore. They know it's a losing business.

FENG: And he was among the demonstrators on Sunday night demanding broader democratic changes.

J C: (Through interpreter) The lockdowns are a result of political tyranny and a lack of checks and balances in China. I hope to be protesting in Tiananmen Square one day, directly sending a critical message to the ruling party.

FENG: Other young protesters had more concrete demands - an end to nearly three years of constant testing and lockdowns. One 29-year-old writer named Yi said he was simply exhausted by what his daily life had become.

YI: (Through interpreter) I wake up worried if my COVID test is up to date, if my digital health code is still green and where I can go to eat if the restaurants are even still open. Life is not normal anymore.

FENG: So he bought some flowers to mourn those killed during a deadly lockdown fire just last week and headed out to the streets.

YI: (Through interpreter) It was my first time ever buying flowers, actually. I held them as a silent protest. My wish is to return to the society we had before lockdown. But that fight will be step by step.

FENG: Many of the protesters say they were once supportive of zero-COVID because it protected them from an unknown virus. Now, the controls themselves are the danger. One woman listed off those who suffered due to pandemic controls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Remember the people lost when the COVID bus overturned," she shouted. "Remember the woman who miscarried in front of the hospital. Remember the Shanghai nurses who died." An elderly Beijinger heard the shouts and came out of his house. He told NPR he'd been a young, passionate demonstrator in the 1980s, during the Tiananmen Square protests. And he supported the country's youth this time as well.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) These young people are brave and clever. They have a clear goal they are working towards.

FENG: What they want is a better future, he said. And they care about their country. Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.