How the World Cup is fueling China's big protests against Beijing's 'zero COVID' lockdowns

Serbia fans at World Cup
(Image credit: Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Chinese authorities are working overtime to suppress the large protests that have broken out across China in response to three years of President Xi Jinping's strict "zero COVID" lockdowns and testing regime. China's censors have gone into overdrive, including cutting shots of jubilant maskless crowds from state TV coverage of the World Cup in Qatar.

As China endures yet another round of "draconian" lockdowns, "in live broadcasts, Chinese citizens saw large crowds gathering and celebrating — maskless — in stadiums, effectively piercing narratives such as 'all other countries screwed up on COVID except us' and 'Western countries don't care about their citizens and just let them die,'" Melissa Chen, a contributing editor at Britain's The Spectator, tweeted.

An open letter questioning the zero COVID policy and asking if China is "on the same planet" as Qatar spread quickly on China's WeChat mobile messenger last week "before being censored," BBC News reports.

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World Cup broadcasts aside, Chinese protesters have been taking steps to get around the censors in a sort of cat-and-mouse game.

Videos of protests are still spreading across Chinese media, thanks to filters and other tricks and the sheer scale of the sharing, New York Times Asia tech reporter Paul Mozur tweeted. "Ultimately, it's not that the censorship apparatus is failing, it's just hit it's natural limit. When you have this many people posting this much and being creative, the world's best internet control regime loses."

Some demonstrators, especially students at prestigious Chinese universities, started holding up blank sheets of paper to protest both Xi's COVID policies and the increasing censorship in China that won't allow them to write protest slogans. In response, "'blank sheet of paper' and 'white paper' now also only show sparing results" on social media, BBC China media analyst Kerry Allen reports.

Other protesters, when ordered to stop waving their blank sheets of paper, "responded with sarcastic chants of 'more lockdowns' and 'I want to do a COVID test,'" BBC New reports. The government has "urged universities across the country to send students home as soon as possible to quell further dissent on campuses," the Financial Times reports.

Clearly "the absolute limits of the most sophisticated online control system in the world are being tested in a way they have not before," Mozur writes. "Still, time, power, and money are all on the side of the censors. Hard to bet against them."

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