China Relaxes Zero-Covid Policy Following Protests From University Students


Cihan Sahin, Contributor

In December of 2022, China finally ended its zero-covid policy due to the people’s frustrations with the government’s tough restrictions on public behavior that lasted nearly three years. Though many celebrate the reclaimed freedom and the lift of certain travel restrictions, allowing many Chinese international students to return home without troubles, others have been worried by an upsurge of positive cases and deaths, along with concerns about whether new variants could develop in the future.

The zero-covid policy employed by the CCP showed little to no leniency in the past years, despite the rest of the world gradually opening back up. This policy led to many systematic lockdowns in districts and cities across the country. Specifically, Urumqi’s population of 4 million had been on lockdown since August for over 100 days. Growing unrest finally reached a tipping point when building residents were trapped in a fire on November 24, 2022, because they were blockaded, and unable to escape.

           This tragedy led to protests across Chinese cities, mainly by a younger generation of citizens, especially university students. In response, schools sent many students homes to prevent more protests on Tuesday in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. For example, Tsinghua University said they protected students from COVID-19 by sending them all home and arranging buses and flights back to their hometowns.

These students’ continued tenacity inspired and sparked protests outside of China and all around the world in European, American, and Middle Eastern countries alike. Most notably, Chinese international students in dozens of universities in the US started vocalizing their opinion and commemorating the memory of the Urumqi fire victims. In many schools, such as UCLA, Columbia University, and Washington University, both Chinese students and residents of the areas were highly opposed to the CCP, chanting in Mandarin for “the Chinese Communist Party, step down” and “Xi Jinping, step down.”

           The Chinese community at Vanderbilt University also commemorated the victims’ deaths and voiced their dissent against the current lockdown measures by hosting candlelight vigils. This was held outside of Buttrick Hall by the Harold Stirling Vanderbilt statue. Much like in other universities, students put up posters, lit candles, and laid flowers. Despite the risky nature of speaking against the Chinese government, even overseas, multiple student protestors bared their faces to speak freely and discuss the injustice of the zero-COVID policy and the repression of freedom.

           Though there are many concerns about whether new variants will emerge, independent studies published by sources such as the Lancet and the EU’s disease agency, ECDC, have confirmed that the supermajority of cases was still the Omicron variant, with the rest being existing strands from Europe, suggesting that this snapshot of data may imply that there are no other variants that are developing during these re-openings. Other experts have cautioned against making this inference, claiming that Covid’s epidemiological profile in one region of a densely populated country like China can’t be extrapolated onto the whole country.

           China has released some data in the past weeks, claiming that there have been around 80,000 COVID-related deaths since their re-opening, though many experts are suspicious of this data figure, asserting that this is a great undercount of the actual number of deaths.

           Much remains to be seen on how the CCP continues to monitor and react to new cases, and whether they will continue with the full reopening or re-implement restrictions if seen fit. It is clear, however, that Chinese university students, both in the mainland and overseas, have made a great impact by speaking out and voicing their dissent for those who can’t, and will continue to do so to protect their freedoms.