Nov 29, 2022

The protests in China.

The protests in China.
Photo by Joseph Chan / Unsplash

Plus, a chance to do some good on Giving Tuesday.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

We're breaking down the protests in China and what they mean for the world. Plus, a question about mass shooting statistics and an opportunity to do some good on this Giving Tuesday.

Do some good.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I caught up with an old family friend who is now running an organization called Double Trellis Food Initiative (DTFI) that is trying to sustainably address food insecurity in Philadelphia. Since June of 2020, he and his team have cooked and distributed over 25,000 meals and delivered 35,000 pounds of groceries to Philadelphians at zero cost to those in need. This is a tremendous accomplishment in America's poorest large city, where 23.3% of residents live in poverty (as of 2019).

Since it is Giving Tuesday, I would like to help him in two ways:

1) First, please consider donating to DTFI directly by going here. Food insecurity is one of the biggest problems in America, and also one of the easiest to solve (by helping feed those in need). DTFI is on the ground doing the good work. Any donation you can offer is appreciated. Donate here.

2) Second, I will also be donating 100% of all new Tangle subscription revenue over the next 24 hours to DTFI. So if you're not yet a Tangle subscriber and become one in the next 24 hours, 100% of your first payment will go to DTFI. You can subscribe here.

All the money donated will go directly to expanding DTFI's meals program.

Thank you for your support, and happy Giving Tuesday!

Quick hits.

  1. Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA) unexpectedly died of colorectal cancer at the age of 61, just weeks after being reelected. (The death)
  2. The shooter in the Buffalo, New York supermarket mass shooting has pled guilty to terrorism and murder charges. 10 people died in the shooting, all of whom were Black. (The plea)
  3. For the first time since 1984, Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano started erupting. It's the largest active volcano in the world, but so far the lava is not threatening any communities. (The eruption)
  4. President Biden called on Congress to intervene and force the adoption of a tentative agreement between railroad strikers and operators. (The intervention)
  5. This afternoon, the Senate is expected to vote on codifying same-sex marriage into law. If the bill passes, it will go back to the House for a final vote, and may end up on President Biden's desk by the end of the week. (The bill)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Protests in China. Over the last week, unprecedented protests against Covid-19 lockdowns have been breaking out in China. The protests are erupting in major cities and universities across the country and being shared on social media platforms like TikTok, an unusual sign of unbridled public anger toward the Chinese government. Demonstrations happened over the weekend in China’s largest cities, Beijing (population 21.5 million) and Shanghai (26.3 million); as well as in Nanjing  8.5 million), Wuhan (11 million) and Urumqi (3.5 million), the capital of Xinjiang.

The protests appear to have started in Urumqi on Friday after a deadly fire broke out in an apartment complex in an area where residents have been under lockdown for more than 100 days. Residents flooded social media with comments alleging that Covid restrictions had delayed an emergency response to the fire which contributed to the deaths of 10 people, including three children.

It is not rare to see open displays of protest in China, though they are typically small and focused on local grievances. What is unusual is multiple protests occurring across several major cities, and focused on the policies of the national government. President Xi has overseen a crackdown on political dissent over the last decade. Many dissidents and protesters are sure to face prison time, and will be easily identified thanks to the vast surveillance structure China has created in their major cities.

In Shanghai, China's most populous city, protesters chanted things like “We want freedom!” and “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock all of China!” Some even called for President Xi Jinping to step down.Thousands of social media videos from across the country have shown protesters clogging roadways and shouting for lockdowns to be lifted. The slogan "I wanna see a movie" has become a rallying cry for grassroots protesters, emphasizing a desire to return to normal life.

China has implemented a "zero COVID" policy throughout the pandemic that requires stringent lockdowns anytime an outbreak occurs. Unlike lockdowns in the U.S., which relied mostly on convincing the public to stay home as a matter of safety, lockdowns in China have involved strictly enforced curfews and limits on travel. People who test positive for Covid-19 are often isolated and sent to quarantine centers where they can recover, while government officials and police have even resorted to sealing the doors to apartment buildings to keep people locked inside. Many residents in major cities must take regular coronavirus tests and have their movements surveilled in the name of preventing outbreaks.

Despite that, on Saturday, officials in China reported an all-time high of nearly 40,000 new cases. Virologists suspect the latest outbreak is due to low levels of natural immunity among the 1.4 billion Chinese residents, as well as less effective, domestically produced coronavirus vaccines that the Chinese government has distributed. Markets dipped on Monday, a sign investors expect this wave of Covid-19 to again disrupt supply chains overseas.

Protests against the government come just a month after China's Congress extended President Xi to his third five-year term. Xi amended the Chinese Constitution in 2018 to remove the two-term limit, extending his authoritarian rule over the country indefinitely. The country-wide protests appear to be the most significant against his leadership since he came to power in 2012.

The Chinese government clamped down on Monday, with police flooding protest sites across the country and arresting demonstrators. Simultaneously, online censorship ramped up, including government bots that spammed Twitter searches for Chinese cities with explicit content to overwhelm the platform's moderation team. While the crackdown ensued, health authorities simultaneously relaxed some Covid-19 restrictions.

Protesters in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Britain, Japan, the U.S. and Canada have also hit the streets in solidarity with Chinese demonstrators.

Today, we'll take a look at some reactions from the right and left, then my take.


As you'll see below, many on both sides of the aisle support the protesters in China, hope that President Xi resists a harsh crackdown, and criticize China's "zero Covid" policy as an untenable and ineffective solution to the current pandemic.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), arguing the protests are about more than just Covid-19.
  • Some say the Chinese people want democracy and the freedoms that many Westerners enjoy.
  • Others argue that "zero Covid" was always unachievable and untenable.

In The New York Post, Miles Yu said the protests in China aren't just about Covid-19 — they are about a dictatorship.

"Last Thursday, a street protestor in the hinterland metropolis Chongqing eloquently addressed a cheering crowd, 'there is only one type of disease in the world — lack of freedom and poverty. We have it both in China!' After he quoted Patrick Henry 'Give me liberty or give me death!' repeatedly, the police tried to arrest him, only to be repulsed by an angry crowd who promptly overwhelmed the fully armed police and rescued the protestor," Yu said. "This is the source of both the Chinese regime’s draconian conduct and the protests that erupted this past weekend. Neither is really about COVID. It’s about the battle between communism and freedom.

"Mao’s draconian Great Leap Forward led to the deaths of more than 40 million Chinese people. Xi’s draconian COVID-zero policy threatens to do the same. They are motivated by a purely totalitarian ideology which assumes not only the complete malleability of nature, but the utter infallibility and invincibility of the Party that could easily destroy nature and science," Yu wrote. "Blinded by this radical utopian vision, the CCP is consistently callous towards its people’s well-being, but this callousness has traditionally impacted more on migrant workers and the rural poor. This time, the Party’s all-encompassing COVID-Zero lockdowns have affected the property-owning and educated middle class and the rich, and this brings with it unintended consequences. Millions of Chinese people across the nation, from all sections of the repressed country, are now willing to risk imprisonment, torture, and even death to stand up to their oppressors."

In National Review, Jim Geraghty asked bluntly: Is Xi Jinping dumb?

"There are good reasons to fear China," Geraghty said. "The country has the largest standing military in the world and the world’s largest navy. It is dramatically expanding its nuclear arsenal. Its human-rights record reads like a demon’s resume and it’s currently committing genocide, but somehow its economic, diplomatic, and cultural power is so strong that the regime has defenders in the West who shrug off the ongoing use of concentration camps. The country has made little secret of its desire to conquer — or, in its own words, “unify” with Taiwan, by force. And in the last few years, you may have noticed that its virology labs don’t seem all that safe and secure. But for all of the menacing, saber-rattling, relentlessness, and ruthlessness, Chinese ruler Xi Jinping and his surrounding yes-men also seem... well, kind of dumb sometimes.

"If not dumb, then they’re prone to sticking with a decision or policy that isn’t working, even as the evidence of how that decision or policy can’t work piles up and the situation gets worse and worse," he said. "The unsustainability and abusiveness of the draconian 'zero Covid' policies was self-evident from the first videos on social media of Wuhan officials welding the doors of apartment buildings shut, locking the residents inside during the first coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese Communist Party’s zero-Covid policies envision the entire country as a prison, themselves as the wardens and guards, and all other citizens as prisoners until further notice... The people who said 'zero Covid doesn’t work' were right. The people who said 'zero Covid works' were wrong. We need a giant flashing neon sign in Times Square to ensure that everyone knows this and that no one forgets it."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it "China's revolt against zero Covid."

"Covid poses a particular threat in China because the regime has advertised zero-Covid as an example of the superiority of its Communist system over messy Western democracy," the board said. "The policy has kept the number of Covid deaths low compared to the West, if you trust China’s official statistics. But the lockdowns haven’t been able to control Covid, only delay its spread. Nearly three years of lockdowns mean the Chinese public has far less natural immunity. In their blinkered nationalism, Chinese leaders refused to import Western mRNA vaccines. The domestic Sinovac vaccine offers less protection as the coronavirus mutates.

"China’s elderly are especially vulnerable, and there is too little hospital space to accommodate seriously ill patients if the country eases Covid restrictions," the board added. "The southern city of Guangzhou said this month it is building quarantine facilities and hospital beds for 250,000 people. Westerners who admire Chinese 'stability' and central planning might consider that the government has had three years of Covid to prepare the hospital system. Rest assured Party commissars in Beijing won’t wait in line for an intensive-care bed... Mr. Xi and the Party will be ruthless in putting down protests if they continue... The Party’s security apparatus will use its monitoring ability and facial recognition to identify the participants, and many if not all of the demonstrators will be arrested in the days ahead. Many will simply disappear."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left worry about how Xi will react, and hope the protests continue.
  • Some criticize the zero Covid policy, saying it is no longer a tenable solution.
  • Others say Xi faces a major dilemma on how to handle the protests.

Jianli Yang, a former Tiananmen Square protester, said the protests have exceeded her expectations.

"The demonstrations began by expressing rage over harsh 'zero covid' policies, but the protesters’ demands quickly evolved into a movement demanding broader freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from the dictates of the Communist Party," he wrote. "I was there when the Chinese Communist Party sent in troops to gun down the protesters, and I fear that history can repeat itself today. The world should not underestimate the determination of Xi and the CCP to remain in power. The regime will make full use of all the resources at its disposal, including surveillance technology, the police and the intelligence services. For that reason, the international community should make use of all the tools available to it to support pro-democracy forces and to deter the Beijing regime from resorting to force.

"We hope that the protests will eventually yield the changes we seek. I see at least four conditions that must be simultaneously met for there to be a chance of achieving meaningful change in China," Yang said. "First, the people must be strongly discontented with the political status quo. Second, a viable democratic opposition must arise. Third, a rift has to occur within the leadership of the CCP government. Fourth, the international community will have to believe that China’s democratic opposition is viable and will opt to support it. Condition 1 has been met; Condition 2 remains a dream for the moment, while Condition 3 could yet occur if the protests continue."

In Bloomberg, Matthew Brooker said Xi has a major dilemma: crackdown or placate?

"It’s unlikely a coincidence that frustration bubbled over just as China has begun to ease back on some of its most draconian restrictions. Earlier this month, the government released a list of 20 guidelines designed to lessen the economic and social impact, such as cutting the isolation period for close contacts," Brooker wrote. "The relaxation didn’t meet the public’s expectations, perhaps due partly to overstretched local officials failing to implement directives. This illustrates the dilemma for an authoritarian system that decides to loosen its grip: Like a crack opening in a dam, the suppressed pressure builds quickly. The result is a perilous situation, to which the government will need to respond quickly.

"A swift adjustment that allows people on the ground to feel the promised easing of controls may be enough to defuse this outburst. The longer the unrest goes on, the more it spreads, and — above all — the more overtly it targets the party and Xi, the greater the chance of a severe crackdown that would deal a blow to an already-weakened economy and further damage investor confidence," Brooker said. "Xi’s instincts are to be uncompromising in dealing with any challenge to the party’s grip on power. Just look at Hong Kong, which has had the freedoms it was promised it could keep for 50 years substantially quashed since anti-government demonstrations in 2019... The risk is that a harsh approach generates its own reaction, trapping the country in a loop of escalating repression and resistance.

The Guardian editorial board called it an extraordinary outpouring of discontent.

"At first, China’s coronavirus strategy allowed most people to get on with life as usual, while other countries struggled with repeated lockdowns or high death tolls, or both. But it has long been clear that elimination is not feasible, and a policy now in its third year is causing increasing frustration and economic damage, leading to a growing number of local Covid-related protests," the board said. "Chinese audiences watching the World Cup noted unmasked crowds celebrating and realized that plenty of places – not just the reckless US – were living happily without such stringent controls. Then came reports that 10 people, including children, had been killed in a blaze while under lockdown in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Video showed a fire engine vainly trying to spray the building from a distance.

"Officials initially took a relatively hands-off approach, with a few detentions rather than a sweeping crackdown. Extensive surveillance makes later retribution straightforward. But if increased censorship and police presence don’t see these protests off, worse may follow. The response in Xinjiang is likely to be harder than in prosperous Shanghai," the board noted. "Those calling for looser controls can expect more [leniency] than those shouting 'Oppose dictatorship.' At the local level, especially, there may be piecemeal concessions. The party does not rely solely on repression and propaganda – as potent as they are – but also on recognizing people’s needs and interests, and meeting some of them, even if belatedly and partially. Yet it has increasingly relied on toughness in recent years."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • It's a remarkable and welcome moment.
  • I hope that the Chinese protesters get what they want — an easing of zero Covid policies.
  • The entire episode is a good reminder of many of the freedoms we can take for granted.

It's a beautiful thing to see.

Whenever I flex my patriotic muscles, I am keen on pointing to other countries that — even in 2022 — have many fewer freedoms that we enjoy here in the United States. China is one of those countries. This is not to say life in China is "bad" or "worse" than life in the U.S. In many ways, for many people, I'm sure it's as good or better. But it is to say that if you enjoy criticizing your government, choosing your political leaders, or expressing yourself publicly, there are few worse places to do it than cities like Beijing.

Which, of course, makes what the Chinese protesters are doing all the more admirable. For the last three years, they've been living through actual lockdowns. The kinds of draconian Covid-19 policies that were the stuff of American nightmares. Chinese residents were actually locked inside their homes, actually forced into isolation camps when they were sick, and actually forced to take vaccines.

None of this was ever going to be tenable. I sincerely doubt China's public Covid-19 numbers are accurate, but even assuming they are, this outcome was entirely predictable. At some point, the world was going to "re-open," and a zero Covid policy would mean a population with far less immunity than those around it. Say what you want about the failures of Moderna and Pfizer, but they're significantly better than the Sinovac China has forced onto many of its citizens. If China had used Western vaccines, or focused on vaccinating the elderly, it might have been able to come out of its current posture with less chaos. But it didn't, so it can't — at least not without the outbreaks and high-risk infections we are seeing now.

This isn't to paint a picture of a citizenry in total opposition to the zero Covid policy. As with any large country, there are bound to be sincere supporters of the national government. Plenty of people outside the big cities can see the upside clearly. I’m sure there are residents inside China’s biggest cities who are grateful one million people haven’t died from or with Covid-19 as they have in countries like ours. But the unrest, the latest outbreak of Covid-19, the tension — it was all predictable.

Every single person who has hit the streets in protest is putting themselves at high risk of imprisonment, fines, or worse. Whether Xi cracks down on those protesters is not really a question. What's curious is whether he will do it publicly, boldly, and violently, or whether it will happen retroactively and discreetly. Those crackdowns already appear to be ramping up, with a wave of arrests on Monday, and one BBC reporter who was arrested and beaten over the weekend.

My fervent hope for the Chinese demonstrators is that they get what they want: An easing of zero Covid policies. With any luck, a successful demonstration that changes the public policy will lend credence to the viability of democratic opposition in China. That is a longer-term, and still fanciful goal. But at the very least, even if they aren't allowed to criticize their government or hit the streets in opposition, the people of China should be able to leave their homes and enjoy the basic freedoms of day-to-day life. Until then, protesters will and should keep the pressure on.

Living in China? We want to hear from you. Reply to this email and let me know what you're seeing and thinking.

Your questions, answered.

Q: The FBI defines a mass shooting as one where four or more people were killed, not just shot. This definition greatly decreases the number of mass shootings compared to the number you quote in the November 28 edition. The gun control advocates prefer the other definition because it helps them sensationalize mass shootings. For fact based commentary on firearms ownership, mass shootings and other firearm related crimes and the effects of gun control laws on crime I highly recommend The Crime Prevention Research Center site founded by John Lott.

— Michael from Wylie, Texas

Tangle: This isn't a question, but it's similar to some other comments I got in response to yesterday's newsletter so I wanted to address it. To be blunt: I think the definition I used is a lot better.

For starters, just in case there is an implication here that I was intentionally misleading our readers, I was very clear that my definition of a mass shooting was the number of people shot, not the number of people killed. That’s what the Gun Violence Archive uses and I think it is a good benchmark. I'm not sure if you've ever been shot. I can't say that I have. But I imagine the impact of being the victim of a mass shooting and surviving it is a pretty life-altering event. The argument that we should limit the definition of mass shootings in America to the ones that actually kill four or more people is just specious to me.

I strongly believe that surviving being shot in a mass shooting event should not mean you don’t “count” in the tally of people who were victims of mass shootings. I’d go as far as to suggest there is a better argument that people who witnessed a mass shooting without being shot should also count as victims.

As for Lott, I agree that much of his work is valuable. It's good context to add. But he also puts out less reliable statistics than the ones I am citing. I’m unsure if his dataset is incomplete or if he is using other criteria besides the FBI’s, but his summary figures are just wrong. This is very easy to check.

For instance, he cites just four "mass shootings'' in 2022, which (as you note) are supposed to be defined by four or more people being killed. But when I looked at his dataset, he doesn't even include several of the deadliest shootings so far this year: There is no listing of the Club Q shooting, which is now over a week old, where five people were killed. Nor does he include the Walmart shooting in Chesapeake, Virginia, where six people were killed. Nor those shootings in Highland Park, Illinois (seven dead), Hartland, Wisconsin (six dead), Sacramento, California (six dead), or Raleigh, North Carolina (five dead). These are just a few from the last couple months that I briefly cross-checked, which more than doubled his total.

In other words: Lott's work on gun crime and politics is often worthwhile, but his figures on mass shootings are not reliable. And I find the idea that a mass shooting must include four people dying instead of four people being shot unhelpful for describing the prevalence of gun violence in America.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Last year, the assassination of Haiti's president set off a new wave of terror across the Caribbean nation. Conditions have plunged to horrifying new lows, with gangs openly carrying out extreme violence in the streets. Fearing that a humanitarian crisis could spur a mass migration to the U.S., some top Biden administration officials are pushing to send a multinational armed force to the country. The United States doesn't want its own troops included in that force, but is struggling to convince any other nations to lead the way. The New York Times has the story.


  • 40,347. The number of Covid-19 cases reported in China on Monday, a new record high.
  • 5,233. The number of fatalities from Covid-19 that China has reported since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • 315,248. The total number of Covid-19 cases with symptoms that China has reported, as of November 28.
  • 1.412 billion. The total population of China.
  • 69. The age of President Xi.
  • 10. The number of years he has served as General Secretary of the Chinese Community Party.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.