The protests that broke out in multiple cities across China last weekend were shocking for many reasons. They were overtly political, with some demonstrators even calling for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down. They were national, extending from Shanghai and Beijing to the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, where the deaths of 10 people trapped in an apartment fire sparked anger over the draconian restrictions imposed to suppress Covid-19. And they were populated mostly by twentysomething Chinese, the beneficiaries of years of economic growth.
The makeup of the protests was surprising for another reason as well. Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, well after the crackdown on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Gen Z Chinese have only ever known a system where the state heavily controls all information. Censors restrict any news that conflicts with the Communist Party’s preferred messaging, while state propaganda consistently touts the Party’s successes and political goals.