A new generation of protesters in China?

It is now three days since protests erupted across the country after 10 people died in an apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Protesters, both on the streets and online, have blamed the country’s strict Covid-zero policy, closely associated with leader Xi Jinping. Millions have joined a call to find out whether the building’s fire escapes were blocked as a result of the policy.

The protests have been wide-ranging – and has the crackdown. Already Wulumuqi (Urumqi) Middle Road in Shanghai has been cordoned off, police present on every corner. There have been arrests of protesters around the country. A BBC journalist has been assaulted and detained. An elderly woman in Hong Kong has been beaten. As for China’s internet, the censorship machine is in overdrive with searches blocked or diverted and state-approved pundits are blaming the protests on foreign influence.

And yet still the protests continue. It is remarkable.

Contrary to many people’s assumptions about China and protest, the two are not wholly unhappy bedfellows. There have been many big protest movements since the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. Tiananmen in 1989 is of course the most oft-cited and arguably the largest both in terms of how long it went on for (well over a month) and the sheer numbers who headed to the capital’s square and the other protest sights across China. But there have been others both before and after, as well as those in Hong Kong. On occasion Beijing even welcomes a protest – they can be a handy distraction and forum for people to vent, just not at the CCP. In 2012, for example, as news continued to swirl about the arrest of popular Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife, hundreds of thousands took to Beijing’s streets in anti-Japanese protests.

So what makes these remarkable then? Well firstly they offer a glimmer of hope. This isn’t hope in the “CCP will collapse” way – there have too many false dawns in the past to believe that might happen. But hope in a way that makes us start to believe that China’s incredibly extensive censorship machine is not quite so well-oiled as we imagined. Since Xi Jinping came to power 10 years ago, the amount of control he has amassed has been terrifying. What the last few days have shown is that it’s far from absolute. News of the deaths in Urumqi have reached people across the country: attempts to censor the information came too late.

People were outraged, perhaps in part because they’d also heard news of the awful treatment of Uyghurs over the years – news that the Chinese government has tried hard to crush or manage – and they felt the sense of injustice.

A more likely reason for the rage is that many who have been locked down have had their own fire escapes blocked. The Urumqi deaths spoke to their greatest fears. And they spoke to these fears at the very time people were most angered – when lots of the country was locking down, again, against a backdrop of smiling, mask-less crowds at the World Cup.

The protests are also remarkable because of how widespread they are. Most protest movements in China are in one geographic area or on one issue. Workers strike about poor factory conditions; young parents about tainted milk. Here people across the country and in Hong Kong are all uniting. Their irks might sometimes differ – some want Xi Jinping to resign, while others just want to be able to leave their house and watch a movie. But there is a common thread – a desire for more freedom and free expression. You can see this in the photos of people holding up blank sheets of paper (a form of protest that incidentally first happened in Hong Kong) to protest censorship – saying nothing at all is the only safe thing to say. You can see it online. “When can we have freedom of speech? Maybe it can start at Beijing’s Liangmahe [an area of the city],” one person wrote on Weibo. Another said: “Before going to sleep I saw what was happening in Liangmahe on my WeChat Moments and then I looked at Weibo and saw that the Xicheng area had added 279 new Covid cases. I started thinking about my own everyday life and the things I am doing. I can’t help but feel a sense of isolation, because I can’t fight and do not dare to raise my voice.” The examples could go on and on.

Have we overstated just how much control the party have? Perhaps. We’ve always known Chinese social media users are in a constant battle of cat-and-mouse with the censors and so it’s no surprise that people did find out about Urumqi (as for World Cup envy, that probably just caught officials off-guard). Or maybe it’s the Chinese state themselves who have slipped up, in this instance in underestimating the bravery and fury of the population, and in creating the conditions for more widespread dissent ironically through their Covid-zero policy. The policy has kept people locked away yes, and the now ubiquitous health QR codes are excellent tracking devices. But people have bonded with those who they’ve spent inordinate amounts of time either literally inside or online and created the very thing the authorities fear – networks.

The question will be whether this dissent will be violently silenced by the CCP, will just peter out over the coming weeks or whether the growing and more united number of voices can bring about long-lasting change. We really hope for the latter.

The grannies are revolting: when the older generation protests

“When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.”

– Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist

When populist governments rise, or when free speech is threatened, it so often falls to the steely wisdom of older generations to fight for justice.

Every age group has its heroes and, so often, older generations are the champions of the young.

Index has covered a range of groups since its inception in 1972 and elderly protesters have often featured. Here is a look at some of the most significant.


Across the country, Belarusians are mass protesting current president Aleksander Lukashenko after elections in August appeared to be rigged.

At the forefront of the ongoing protests is 73-year-old Nina Bahinskaya.

The former geologist has certainly become identifiable with the demonstrations. Index’s Mark Frary spoke to her.

“I decided they [the authorities] would not be so harsh to an old lady, that’s why I decided to organise some activities myself,” said Nina.

Bahinskaya began her protesting after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, distributing leaflets critical of the Soviet regime, so has experience demonstrating against oppressive governments.

“I don’t want it to continue because I have children, grandchildren and even a great-grandchild.”

President Lukashenko recently met with Vladimir Putin. In a showing of support, Putin agreed to give the Lukashenko government a sizeable loan. It has furthered concern in the country about the increase of Russian influence.

Bahinskaya echoed this worry, she said: “This is quite obvious that some kind of new annexation is happening.”

See Index’s most recent coverage and Bahinskaya’s interview with Mark Frary here.


In 1976 the National Reorganization Process seized control of Argentina. The military junta were responsible for a number of atrocities. Backed by the United States as part of a ‘dirty war’, the Argentinian government committed acts of state terrorism upon its own citizens, including the forced disappearances of close to 30,000 people.

A higher value was placed upon young children and babies due to a waiting list for trafficked children. Those hopeful of adopting the trafficked children were military families and supporters of the new regime.

Lucia He spoke to one of Argentina’s ‘famous grandmothers’ for Index in 2017. Buscarita Roa, part of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has campaigned since 1977 for disappeared victims to be identified.

She told Index: “Even if you’ve found your own grandchild, you stay because you think of the grandmother who is sick in bed and still hasn’t found hers. To us, the grandchildren we are searching for are all ours.”

The group began protesting at the height of the fear spread by the junta. One of the two founding members of the organisation was disappeared. Its high profile led to infiltration. In 1986, an extract from the book Mothers and Shadows by Marta Traba was published in Index. It spoke of the ‘notorious’ Captain Alfredo Astiz, whose access to the group led to 13 further disappearances.

Despite its reputation, Roa insisted there was little glory in being part of the organisation.

“Being a Grandmother of Plaza de Mayo is not something to be proud of, because having a disappeared grandchild is not something to be proud of.”


In 2018, Annemarie Luck covered one of Japan’s forgotten scandals: the South Korean ‘comfort women’ or, more accurately, sex slaves.

It took until 1992 for survivors to tell their story

Luck reported that some members of the survivors’ group still meet at the same spot every Wednesday outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

They were first issued with a signed apology in 1994 by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and in 2015, an agreement was reached between Japan and South Korea for the equivalent of $9 million.

Victims, as well as South Korean state officials, viewed the agreement as inadequate and protests have since continued.

239 women had registered with the South Korean government by 2016 as survivors of sexual slavery.

The House of Sharing in the city of Gwanju is home to many of the survivors. Team leader at the facility, Ho-Cheol Jeong, told Index of the impact the women he calls the ‘grandmothers’ have had.

Ho-Cheol said: “In a way, these women could be thought of as the original pioneers of the movement against sexual abuse and harassment that’s spreading throughout the world right now.”

Ukraine & Russia

In 2014, Index reported on the Russian government covering up its own soldiers’ deaths from the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Bereaved families were ‘discouraged’ from talking to media organisations.

Since the conflict broke out in February 2014, an estimated 5,665 soldiers have been killed

73-year-old activist and grandmother Lyudmila Bogatenkova faced a retributive accusation of fraud in response to drawing up a list of military casualties.

Bogatenkova was at the time head of a Soldiers’ Mothers branch in the city of Stavropol. The organisation provides legal advice to soldiers, as well as education programmes.

The allegation threatened Bogatenkova with up to six years in jail, before Russia’s human rights council intervened.

At the time, the BBC reported that local journalists were unable to meet the families of perished soldiers due to threats from ‘groups of aggressive men’.


Not all grannies are equally ready to stand up in the face of repression.

In 2013, after Chinese media frequently drew attention to stories of neglected pensioners, a new law was introduced.

The legislation stipulates that adults can face jail time or be sued if they do not visit their parents regularly.

Though brought in to Chinese law, it faced derision from across China and the globe and was not expected to be widely enforced. Many believed it was introduced to serve as an ‘educational message’.

However shortly after it was introduced a 77-year-old woman sued her daughter, who was subsequently ordered to provide financial support as well as bi-monthly visits.

The country struggles with the problem of an ageing population that, as numbers continue to reduce could cause economic growth in the region to fall.

Index Freedom of Expression Awards: Arts nominee Meltem Arikan

Awards Arikan

Turkey’s Gezi Park protests of 2013 saw a venting of frustration by many against what they saw as the increasingly authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK party.

The protests were preceded by the run of Meltem Arikan’s play ‘Mi Minor’ in Istanbul from December 2012 to April 2013. Mi Minor used role play and social media to tell the story of a pianist using technology and social media to struggle against the regime in a fictional land called Pimina. In the month after the play ended, protests erupted in Istanbul, with social media playing a key role.

Arikan, already a prominent writer, found herself accused of fomenting rebellion and faced a co-ordinated campaign of abuse online from government supporters. She recently told Index on Censorship:

“When I was researching for Mi Minor [in 2011] I did everything I could so that the play wasn’t associated with Turkey, or the particular situation of Turkish politics, or any other actual country. It was a fictional dystopia. Mi Minor is an absurd play and it is too worrying to see how absurdity can be accused of being responsible for the reality of what happened in Gezi Park.”

“And the most worrying thing is that these accusations are still on-going. I wrote an absurd play and now my life has become more absurd than my play.”

Forced to flee because of the resulting pressures, Meltem Arikan now lives in the United Kingdom. She spoke with Index on Censorship about her nomination and the future of her work.

Brazil: Bills rushed through congress in bid to suppress World Cup protests

Protests against increase in public transportation costs in Rio de Janeiro on 13 February (Image: Mauricio Fidalgo/Demotix)

Protests against increase in public transportation costs in Rio de Janeiro on 13 February (Image: Mauricio Fidalgo/Demotix)

On Friday 14 February, Brazil’s Minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, announced a bill to regulate safety measures during protests. The bill allows for use of force by the military police and punishment for violent actions during demonstrations, and will be sent to congress for consideration in the coming days. The move comes after the death of Bandeirantes Network cameraman Santiago Andrade on 10 February, from injuries sustained covering a protest. This is the latest move by Brazil’s government to control popular discontent ahead of this summer’s FIFA World Cup.

The government is rushing vaguely worded, extraordinary bills defining “terrorism” to the floor of congress. Currently, there are no specific laws for the crime of terrorism in Brazilian legislation. Crimes are classified in the National Security Act, created during the military dictatorship. A number of bills tackling this issue, which could potentially penalise protest actions, are now being debated in congress, without input from the population.

A street protest against rising bus fares in Rio de Janeiro on 6 February erupted in violence, when gas bombs and fireworks thrown by some demonstrators injured seven people, including Santiago Andrade. The cameraman was hit by a rocket firework launched by two protesters, which burst over his head. He later died from the injuries, and the two protesters were arrested in controversial circumstances.

The incident generated national uproar. Congressmen called the protest an act of terrorism and promised action. A number of figures within the Brazilian government, including President Dilma Rousseff, condemned the “escalating violence in protests”. Citing public security, congress moved quickly to table bills aimed at defining actions in public places — both violent and non-violent — as terrorism. Bill 499/2013, which has been fast tracked for consideration, defines terrorism as “causing terror or widespread panic” and threatens penalties of up to 30 years. The bill further stipulates that acts of terror committed with explosives increases the penalty by one third. It also criminalises “Black Bloc” protest groups, and wearing masks. Legal experts have criticised the bill for its vague language which leaves room for wide interpretations. Further, critics contend that it shows the government’s intent to use the bill as a tool to suppress popular protests during the World Cup.

The controversial Bill 728/2011 was created to punish “infractions” committed during the World Cup. In its text, acts of terrorism are associated with religious or ideological positions, and it also limits Brazilians’ ability to strike. The bill was nicknamed the AI-5 Cup, after the 1968 AI-5 act, which in gave extraordinary powers to the then-president and suspended key civil and constitutional guarantees for over 20 years. Under pressure from Brazil’s civil society, 728 was shelved.

Still under consideration in congress, however, is Bill 236/2012 — an anti-terror project that promises to modernise Brazil’s penal code, which dates from 1940. While it categorises terrorism, 236 does not define it. Among its most dangerous threats to freedom of expression is the criminalisation of disturbing the peace, and damage to public property by “vandals” and “vagrants”. The bill does not further define or clarify these terms.

Former justice minister Miguel Reale Jr, a renowned jurist and professor of law at the University of Sao Paulo, criticised the law’s “legal nonsense” and labelled it a setback for journalism.  The bill would criminalise defamation and impose four year sentences without adequately defining this offence. He has launched a campaign against it, which has gained support from the legal community.

Bill 236 also contains “crimes against sporting and cultural events”. Any person who promotes “tumult” within 5 km of a sporting event would be imprisoned for up to two years, and the bill would also block protest access to the sport or cultural venue for up to three years. If applied, any popular protest on game days could be banned.

But whether or not some or all of the bills are passed, President Rousseff looks set to be able to curtail protests. On 20 December, a manual on the enforcement of law and public order, put together by the Ministry of Defence, entered into force. The manual defines “opponent forces” as persons, groups or organisations that provoke radical and violent actions, and cites the blocking of public streets as a major threat. Under certain conditions, the manual allows the president to give police powers to the armed forces.

Brazilians who wish to take to the streets, could have an interesting spring.

This article was posted on February 17, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org