No more ‘lying flat’ (tangping)

On Monday I was blithely eating a hard-boiled egg for breakfast and occasionally eyeballing my Twitter feed when I saw some anomalous words in headlines: China, protests, riots, demonstrations. I sat up straight.

These were words that rarely appear in the same sentence, at least not in the past decade. For the last few months, that facade of perfect, impenetrable authoritarian control in China had seen cracks, little by little: first the videos and voice recordings in April from Shanghai residents demanding to be let out from lockdown, given food, bring their ill loved ones to the hospital, to go to work… Then the protest slogans on banners draped over the Beijing Sitong bridge in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress, a smear on what was otherwise a norm-defying triumphant affair for Xi Jinping — a lone attempt by one brave man that was later quickly stamped out. Or so it seemed.

In November, more violent ruptures surfaced. Last week, there was a mass breakout of workers at an iPhone factory to escape lockdown and demand delayed bonuses. They clashed with police in white protective suits with plastic riot shields and metal rods, who beat and kicked them in return. The videos were painful yet surreal. I felt like I was watching some kind of prison break, of humans being treated like farmed cattle, but also some alter-universe K-Pop video (e.g. Big Bang’s Fantastic Baby when the members square off against people in hazmat suits).

And then over this past weekend, these seemingly isolated flare-ups coalesced and became too big to ignore. As I scrolled through the videos of protests across campuses and streets in China on the Twitter account @whyyoutouzhele, I knew I was witnessing history. China’s biggest demonstrations since 1989. I cried watching some of them: the man who held up flowers at a pedestrian crossing, in plain sight of rows of police, knowing the inevitability of his fate but still asking by-standers, “What is there to be afraid of?” (He was promptly tackled by police.) A Tsinghua student whose shaky voice rang out through the speaker, “I will regret the cowardice for the rest of my life.” Overseas students in the US chanting the same slogans for dignity and freedom (see Instagram account @citizensdailycn), crying and wanting to go home to visit their family. Stirring, scorching.

It takes a lot for Chinese people to get on the streets. It really takes a lot.

It takes three years of living with the fear of spontaneous quarantines due to Covid exposure, the despair of lockdowns with no end in sight. It takes an unrelenting regime of mass-testing every few days, of colored health codes dictating your daily life, of no more overseas travel and renewing your passport. It takes being taken to a makeshift quarantine camp when you’re Covid-positive — the conditions so bare-bones that you sometimes have to bring your own chamber pot. It takes a Guizhou bus taking Covid patients en route to a camp, flipping over, killing 27. It takes a mass exodus of workers on foot, walking for hundreds of kilometers. It takes a deadly fire at a building in Urumqi, where residents were barred from leaving their homes due to pandemic restrictions, killing 10.

That’s how China’s 1.4 billion people have lived, in a prolonged state of emergency that has upended their lives — lives that have been entirely subjugated to Covid Zero. I hear about it from my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, from friends who are there. It sounds far-away and unbelievable but it’s been their everyday life.

In the dining room, my mom walked past behind me as I watched footage on my screen. “Oh wow,” she said, sounding genuinely surprised. “I didn’t know young people had it in them.”

“What do you mean?”

My mom belonged to the 1989 generation — those who had gone through Tiananmen and had marched on the streets that distant summer.

“I thought your generation was all about lying flat, but I guess they still have some guts” — she winced and averted her eyes when a protestor on-screen got dragged into a police car — “Why watch? It’s so, so sad.”

Why watch? Why write? Why yell slogans? Why protest in solidarity? For most of my years alive I’ve been focused on how to make my own life better, and then I understood some people don’t even get to live.

“What brave people,” she murmured. “What brave people.”

People have stopped lying flat — they’ve stood up.

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