This has been a tumultuous week in China. From widespread unrests to the passing of Jiang Zemin.
Right after I posted my previous blog entry last Saturday, things boiled over in Shanghai. A vigil that evening on Wūlǔmùqí road for the 10 burn victims in Ürümqi turned into a protest. This was followed up the next day by various vigils around the city. On Monday the police squelched these vigils by showing up in a large presence across the city. Even a week later there is still a lot of policy presence across the city. Much more than usual. As a result, the city has been quiet for the last few days, but everyone is tense. The unusual cold weather 2C/35F no doubt played a role too why it was so quiet.
Wednesday evening, I had dinner at a friend’s place near Wūlǔmùqí road, the epicenter of the protests in Shanghai. There were parked police cars with flashing emergency lights at every street corner in that neighborhood. I jokingly remarked to my host that they must feel very safe now. While it was quiet in that neighborhood, it wasn’t the weekend before and we’ve all seen those videos in the Western media. It was interesting to me that while these videos were hard to find inside of China, they were readily available on the US version of Tiktok. It makes me wonder whether Tiktok is using this as an example to show the US regulators that they are independent from their Chinese holding company.
The police presence is not just in the French concession, the area around Wūlǔmùqí road. It is all throughout Shanghai, including people’s square and Xīntiāndì (an affluent dining and shopping area) which are close to my hotel.
The city is restless and one way this is noticeable is through the never-ending rumors going around the grapevine. On Wednesday the two main rumors were that the Shanghai government was going to shutdown Pudong airport and that they were going to mandate a 60-day lock down. Both turned out to be false. Now at the end of the week things have turned a bit more upbeat. Various cities around China have reduced their anti-COVID measures, from stopping required daily COVID test results for entering public spaces (grocery stores, subways, etc.) to releasing buildings from quarantine. While Shanghai didn’t reduce its mandated COVID tests yet (currently every 48-hours), it did release many buildings across the city from quarantine and you no longer have to show your health code to enter the subway and city parks.
On Wednesday afternoon it was announced that Jiang Zemin passed away. This is interesting timing. On the one hand it gave the government a story to draw attention away from the unrests, on the other hand, Jiang Zemin was responsible for opening China and its resulting prosperity, something the protestors could use to amplify their message. So far everything is quiet is Shanghai, but I don’t have the feeling this is the end of it yet.
It was very interesting to see how China is mourning. Obviously, there is an outpouring of sympathy messages on social media, but popular Chinese apps such as Alipay and even banking apps all turned their usual colorful front pages to grey. When I first saw this, it was very confusing, and I wondered whether there was something wrong with my phone but when other apps started doing the same, I made the connection.
This is my last weekend in China. I’m flying back on Tuesday. It’s been a different visit than I had imagined but still a very good one. I met with many friends and business relationships, I saw many new companies that I hadn’t been exposed to before that have fascinating business models such as Xiaohongshu (小红书) a retail/review/streaming company, I spent a lot of time with my company’s engineers who loved having an engineering leader over to interact with. Finally, I saw history in the making. I got to experience what the Chinese people must endure to comply with zero-COVID, how it is boiling over, and how the government is responding to their grievances. I doubt China will ever become a democracy according to our Western model, and these protests won’t make it change, but that doesn’t mean China doesn’t evolve and that the Chinese government doesn’t listen to its people. While I still think China has a rough 4-months ahead as it gradually opens up to more COVID exposures, I am more hopeful now than I was a few weeks ago. Only time will tell …