In the most significant uprising since Tiananmen Square in 1989, protests have spread across China as citizens express their frustration with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its oppressive policies. But even as the CCP has cracked down on protesters, American leaders have been slow to issue their support for freedom.
In cities around the country, protestors have hit the streets and have been met with fierce opposition. Protestors aren’t voicing one message but seem to have lost patience with their lack of basic freedoms. Some want to see the removal of President Xi Jinping, who recently appointed himself to another term as ruler, others are protesting government corruption, and some desire an end to the CCP amid wider calls for democracy. And most are holding up blank white sheets of paper to symbolize the reality that they have been silenced by a tyrannical government, hence the moniker, White Paper Revolution.
The protests were triggered by China’s continuing and austere “zero-Covid” policy, which has resulted in strict lockdowns. China’s zero-COVID measures mandate frequent testing, and citizens are required to present evidence of a negative COVID test to use public transportation or enter businesses. Positive tests require full-on quarantine.
However, a person doesn’t have to test positive to be quarantined; even those who happen to be in the same general area as a person who tested positive, such as in a mall, will be sent into lockdown and prohibited from going to work or to the grocery store or even going outside.
Residential complexes have been locked down because of a single infected person. Entire cities like Shanghai have been also locked down, some more than once, and authorities have even locked down whole provinces such as Xinjiang, Tibet, and Jilin. The government has also built massive quarantine camps to house infected citizens and those who have been in contact with them.
The flash point that drove many protestors to defy the CCP and take to the streets was a fire at an apartment complex in Xinjiang that killed at least 10 people, including children. The residents could not escape because their doors were locked from the outside, and firefighters were slowed in reaching the building due to lockdown measures that had been in place for over 100 days.
Despite the deaths and the protests, the CCP has said it will continue its zero-COVID restrictions, though some newspapers are now reporting that China will soften its policies in some districts. However, the CCP issued a statement just two days ago saying,
“We must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law, resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order and effectively maintain overall social stability.”
Police have already arrested, often with force, numerous protestors, as well as a BBC journalist. Riot police have broken up protests. Some outlets are reporting that tanks have even rolled down streets in some cities. The scenes recall memories of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. One woman stood before riot police before they took her phone and began beating her, earning her the moniker of “Tank Lady” in commemoration of “Tank Man,” the lone protester who bravely stood before a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square.
It isn’t just brute force being deployed against the protestors. The CCP is also utilizing highly sophisticated technology to combat the protesters. Chinese officials use facial recognition, biometrics, gait analysis, location data, and Internet activity to locate and identify protestors or anyone else the party deems a threat to social order.
China has long engaged in severe censorship, including on social media, to prevent the spread of any information it disfavors. This effort has been greatly aided by U.S. Big Tech companies such as Apple.
Apple has repeatedly bowed down to the demands of the CCP by removing apps, VPNs, and the Taiwan flag emoji, as well as censoring Hong Kong singers on Apple Music. Apple also gave ownership of customers’ data to a company controlled by the Chinese government.
In 2019 when residents of Hong Kong took to the streets to demonstrate against a bill to extradite Hong Kong citizens to mainland China, Apple helped the CCP squash the protests by removing an app that allowed protestors to track police movements.
Now, critics claim that the company is once again assisting the CCP in oppressing its people. Protestors in totalitarian countries use AirDrop, an app on Apple devices that allows users to share information with each other without going over the Internet (which, in China and Hong Kong, is controlled by the CCP).
Users can opt to receive AirDrop messages from anyone, allowing for the spread of information without the knowledge of authorities. AirDrop had been especially effective in helping protestors in Hong Kong before Apple shut the app down. Now they have done something similar in China.
On November 9, Apple released a new version of its operating system iOS 16.1.1, but rather than stating what the changes were, Apple informed users that “this update includes bug fixes and security updates and is recommended for all users.” Part of the update turned out to be a change only affecting iPhones sold in China. Now, AirDrop can only be set to receive AirDrops from everyone for 10 minutes before switching back, which has had massive ramifications for protesters’ ability to communicate with each other.
The change has received criticism from many including Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Hawley wrote,
“Unconscionable though this decision may be, it is not surprising: under your leadership, Apple has time and again assisted the Chinese Communist Party in surveilling and suppressing the basic human rights of the Chinese people.”
He also urged Cook to “take meaningful steps to reduce your dependence on Chinese labor, especially by reshoring production in the United States.”
Cook has been an outspoken critic of the United States over perceived social justice issues, such as his views on Georgia’s election integrity laws, but he has remained silent on the reported Chinese genocide of the Uyghur Muslims and the persecution of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities. Cook also lauded the protests that took place in cities across the U.S. over the killing of George Floyd, but he has refused to comment on the protests in China.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just western business executives choosing to remain silent on the China protests or refusing to condemn the CCP’s policies. World leaders are giving little substantive support to the protests. As an example, the White House and State Department released statements saying, “We’ve long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC.”
White House spokesman John Kirby was asked why the White House didn’t issue a call to China to stop the detaining of protestors to which he responded, “We’re watching this closely … We continue to stand up and support the right of peaceful protests.”
When asked for the President’s reaction to protestors’ message Kirby responded, “The president’s not going to speak for protesters around the world. They’re speaking for themselves.” Kirby was also asked what the President’s message to the protestors was to which he answered, “The White House supports the right of peaceful protests.”
The lack of support isn’t out of step with other freedom protests that have broken out over the last several years. Lisa Daftari, a foreign policy commentator for Foreign Desk News, criticized the administration’s response to the protests in China and in Iran with this tweet:
The Obama administration has long been criticized for its refusal to aid in the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009-2010, while, more recently, the Biden administration pressured Canada to stop the Freedom Convoy trucker protests in February. Canada did so, but in a decidedly CCP fashion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to meet with the protesters; invoked the Emergencies Act; sent police to beat and arrest peaceful protesters and seize their vehicles; and ordered crowdsourcing sites to seize the protesters’ funds and banks to freeze their accounts.
The Chinese people have been under despotism for decades. The Chinese government has committed so many human rights abuses against its citizens that it is simply taken for granted as a normal way of life and ignored. The CCP has labor and concentration camps and has perpetrated crimes against humanity towards Uyghurs and other minorities.
Hong Kong was once considered the freest city in the world under British administration but under Chinese rule it is now a police state.
The West failed to stand up for the Hong Kong protestors and so far they are failing to stand up for mainland Chinese protestors.
Everyone is afraid to stand up to the CCP, but this needs to stop. This is a moment when rather than cower, our leaders and the Christian Church must stand up and openly support those who desire freedom and basic human dignity. As Proverbs 31:8-9 commands us,
“Open your mouth for the mute,
For the rights of all the unfortunate.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.”
If the United States and the Christian Church will not stand up and speak out for the Chinese protesters, then who will?
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.