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Let freedom ring from a fishbowl.

 What’s your opinion on goldfish? I’ve always liked them. They’re quiet, docile, and won’t make a ruckus like eagles, donkeys, and elephants sometimes do. Here’s a fun fact about goldfish. Did you know that there was a city council in Monza, Italy that forbid people from raising goldfish in curved fishbowls because the council declared it as animal cruelty given that the curved surfaces would cause the fish to have a distorted reality? I am not mocking the goldfish, especially since a caged eagle lives in an equally distorted reality, arguably to a lesser degree. However, I’ve always known goldfish to stay in their own lanes, focusing on improving themselves, and prospering. Thus, you can imagine my shock and amazement when I found out some goldfish were pounding into their fishbowls, protesting to be let out. 

On the weekend of Thanksgiving, dozens of mass protests burst out on the streets of multiple major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. The protests originated as a vigil for the ten individuals who died in a fire inside a resident building in Urumqi, Xinjiang. The city was under lockdown, abiding by President Xi Jin Ping’s zero COVID policy of which China must achieve zero new COVID-19 cases. There are heavy allegations that the deaths were caused by the lockdown restrictions, delaying emergency aid and trapping the victims inside the fire. 

To give a brief overview of China’s COVID-19 response, President Xi Jin Ping has instituted a zero COVID policy, enforcing strict city lockdowns in the occurrence of new COVID cases. These lockdowns are not simple stay at home mandates, but extremely draconian-like policies to the extent where, in some cities, only a single family member can leave the neighborhood (not house) every other day to go on a timed trip (a security guard is keeping track) to the grocery store. Due to these restrictions, people are forced to quarantine in their homes. Some fortunate individuals may still receive a portion of their salary even though job productivity has decreased significantly. Yet, a concerning number of individuals were left unemployed, with no food, electricity, or medical aid for a concerning period. Understandably, popular dissent and frustration with the lockdowns have been brewing for a while. The passing of the ten individuals struck a match and triggered a nationwide movement, demanding for amendments and change. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the government could justify their harsh restrictions with consideration for the public’s health. But, when people are dying, no longer from the virus but by the hands of their government, riots and mutiny are inevitable. 

Yes, this is another article about COVID-19 around the world. Yes, I know that the pandemic has been going on for two years, and you are sick of hearing about it (Fun fact: eagles can be very self-centered). However, as a Chinese-American individual, who is familiar with Chinese society and honors Chinese tradition, I am here to tell you that never in a thousand years, with a thousand guesses, would I have predicted that Chinese civilians would be protesting against COVID-19 protocols, chanting “give me liberty, or give me death.” 

America is a country built on dispute. From when the Sons of Liberty threw 342 chests of tea in the Boston waters to the Black Lives Matters marches in 2020, American history’s beginning and continuation is saturated with revolting against institutions of power. However, China does not have such familiar experience with protests. Aside from a few historical exceptions like Tiananmen Square, the Communist Chinese government has had a stringent control on their people. Public media and social media are tightly regulated with censorship. Disagreement and snide remarks about the country might be disregarded, but movements that threaten the executive power are almost immediately deleted. 

For example, on November 10th, 2022, an anonymous man pasted a banner on the Sitong Bridge, one of Beijing’s busiest overpasses, demanding President Xi Jinping to step down from his position. The demonstration briefly went viral on all Chinese social media platform before all content about the protest was shut down and censored. In support of the protest, some users began sharing a soundtrack from the popular Netflix TV show “Arcane” on the Internet called “Gu Yong Zhe,” which directly translates to “a lonely hero”; a title dedicated to the brave individual protester. Within hours, the soundtrack was also censored. 

Thus, given China’s consistent history of squashing any protesting sentiment, I could not believe that people were successfully rallying and demanding to be released from their COVID-19 lockdowns. Even during the height of the lockdowns, when many elders passed away in their home due to blocked transit to the hospitals, Chinese civilians, who were discontent, abided by the protocols. Hence, I believed that their commitment and tolerance to the government and eradicating COVID-19 was limitless. The protests have fortunately disproven my initial belief, and the people’s patience will bear no more. Amazingly, it feels like China is on the edge of a revolution. 

However, the government’s response has been violent, with dozens of police squads detaining and arresting resisting protesters. China government’s consistently stringent surveillance and censorship system, the recent blacklisting of popular Chinese celebrities, and now their forceful rebuttal to the COVID-19 protests all emphasize that the government, President Xi Jin Ping, is still in control. The government will not change the fishbowl; instead, they will be the ones to break the glass and leave the goldfish gasping for air. They will have the goldfish understand that they will either live in their curved, “distorted” reality or not live at all. 

Yet, unless President Xi Jin Ping loosens his “Zero COVID” policy to a more realistic, attainable goal, then I firmly believe that the protests will reprise. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually. In response to COVID-19, countries have two choices: preventation or containment. America has adopted the prevention method with the vaccine and booster campaign. However, China adopted the containment method, relying on constant PCR testing and quarantine. With new COVID-19 variants, some alarmingly more infectious than the original strain, containment is an unrealistic, unsustainable option. Not because the economy will collapse or the country will fall into a depression, but because the people will not tolerate the government’s contempt forever. 

I would be ignorant to preach that the Chinese civilians live in a “distorted” reality. Afterall, we all live in our own fishbowls, some are just a little bigger than others. Given that I’m not a Chinese civilian, I have never had to live with the government’s implemented policies, and I feel it would be inappropriate for me to mindlessly throw scorn at China’s COVID response.  However, recent events have proven that their response is not sustainable and inevitably detrimental to their people’s physical and mental health. The people of China have responded to their government with the clear message that the government is no longer dealing with a docile goldfish in a fishbowl, but an exasperated piranha pushed to the brink of their patience. As a witness, I can assure you that the piranha has been starved of their lawful, human rights and are hungry for retribution. Let freedom ring, not from the Liberty Bell, but from a fishbowl. 

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