Sound and Music of the Zero-COVID Protests in China

Over the week since Nov 24, 2022 when 10 people locked in an apartment building died in Urumqi, Xinjiang, thousands of protesters took to the streets in multiple cities to protest the zero-COVID policy that was still in place then, with no exit strategy. But within two weeks, the Chinese government completely dismantled zero-COVID, leading to a wave of COVID-19 deaths and countless family tragedies that are now ravaging a country with an overwhelmed heathcare system. This essay looks at that earlier moment when a few thousand protestors played a critical role in catalyzing a national policy reversal. At the center of the protests were repeated chants calling out for democracy and freedom of expression as well as an end to zero-COVID. I ponder the simple repetition of the chants which dramatically impacted not just the immediate protest sites but the entire nation. Paradoxically, repetition points to a philosophy of possibility.

(Thumbnail Caption: Blank pieces of paper were used during China's anti-zero-COVID and pro-democracy protests in late November 2022.)


China was Burning...

Ten people reportedly locked in an apartment building in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, died during a fire on Thursday night, November 24. A video of the fire appeared to show that the water spurts from the fire trucks just missed the fire by a hair, with the vehicles unable to get closer as they were blocked by fences, tents, and metal barriers used for COVID-19 measures. 


(Now-censored videos appear to show China's zero-Covid measures delaying response to deadly fire; Video of fire, 0:44-)


Just hours after the fire, local protests erupted with crowds repeatedly chanting in unison: “Free Us!” (解放 jiefang, which means “to emancipate”), sounding out the pulse of their fury. A crowd of protesters pushed against lockdown fencing while emitting sustained cries, eventually breaking the barriers. The coordinated cries mirror the functionality of Chinese work songs that organize hard laborers’ motions.


Xinjiang protest

The Urumqi fire was only the latest in a string of incidents in which zero-COVID policies caused deaths in cases of delays when people sought emergency care, the crash of a bus driving a full load of passengers en route to quarantine, and many other tragedies. Under prolonged lockdown periods, including in Xinjiang, people’s mental health and access to health care and food were negatively affected. Despite this, in the initial phases of COVID-19, Chinese policies managed to keep infections low while fatalities ratcheted up in the US and other countries. However, while the rest of the world opened up in early 2022 with the emergence of COVID-19 variants that produced mild symptoms, China has stayed on zero COVID.


The sound of Chinese protesters joins other sounds in contexts of resistance and violence that have increasingly attracted attention in music studies. Writers have come to recognize the material effects of sound that indicate the need for a paradigm shift from the framework of “interpretation,” whether of concert or popular music. Particularly notable research has examined the effects and affordances of sound in war zones (Daughtry 2015), and the physiological effects of Guantanamo Bay inmates’s sustained exposure to music that is reduced to sensory weapon (Cusick 2006). Chinese protesters direct our attention to a different side of sound that may have a dimension of violence (breaking of lockdown barriers), but is channeling resistance against a state assemblage, rather than being part of a state assemblage (as in the US military complex). In addition, sounds of the Chinese protests are produced by humans rather than military weapons or weaponized sound. While protest sounds are limited by physical and social constraints (Tausig 2019), they are also raw processes of change making. I connect repetitive chants to Deleuzian philosophy that within its Baroque conceptual apparatus contains the promise of the non-identical, where each iteration of what looks the same is fundamentally different because it occupies a different place in time (Deleuze 1994). This differentiation is key to understanding how protest sound led to changes within the immediate protest space, eventually transforming all levels of the Chinese body politic through a domino effect.


Forty-eight hours after the Urumqi fire and the local protests that immediately followed, a vigil for those killed by the fire was held in Shanghai on Saturday night. However, it turned into a protest with people chanting in call-and-response style, drawing on a standard musical format to organize, signal, and channel their resistance. To the alternating calls by a sole voice, “Xi Jinping 习近平” and “Communist Party” (共产党; gongchan dang),” the crowd chanted, “Step Down!” (下台; xiatai).


(Shanghai protest)


By Sunday night, protests had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan, and other cities. Protests were held at Peking University, Tsinghua University (Beijing), and Communication University of China (Nanjing). Catalyzed by the videos of Xinjiang residents who had been under lockdown for three months burning to their death, protests that had appeared sporadically since October when a protest banner was hung at an overpass in Beijing, now swept the nation. Frustrated people in multiple cities caught the wave of outrage just as quickly as dry tinder catches fire. Notably, protesters called for not just an end to COVID-19 tests and lockdowns but even chanted in rhythmic unison for “Democracy and rule by law! Freedom of expression!” (民主法制,表达自由; minzhu fazhi; biaoda ziyou). This is seen in the video montage (at 1:24) released by New York Times.

Pro-democracy protests montage

A little later in the video montage (1:50), there is criticism of Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term as “paramount leader,” with a prediction of lifelong tenure. In call and response style, a leader and the crowd declaimed with angry emphasis, “We don’t want a lifelong term!” and “China doesn’t need an emperor!” (不要终生制,中国不需要皇帝; buyao zhongsheng zhi, zhongguo bu xuyao Huangdi). The video montage ends with repeated unison chants of “Serve the people!” (为人民服务; wei renmin fuwu) and “Freedom!” (自由; ziyou). Multiple media outlets, such as CNN, reported that this was the first large-scale protest in China to have occurred in decades, noting parallels with the Tiananmen protests of 1989.


The above shows that public resentment against the hardships of lockdown had split over into mass acts of deterritorialization, seen most obviously in breaking COVID-19 barriers in Xinjiang, literally erasing territory demarcations. Pent-up frustration was channeled into action and sound. Readers who understand Chinese will be able to discern how the natural accentuation of spoken Chinese translates into the chanted slogans, each with its distinctive declamatory rhythm. Some rhythms are more complex. Others fall into a simple duple meter with a regular pulse: “Zi you!” (freedom), “Jie fang!” (to emancipate). All chants follow the simple rule of repetition. But there is never an exact repetition because a temporal difference has elapsed between each non-identical sounding (consider how each vocalization of the chant contains minute differences). What we hear then is less the consolidation of a “refrain” (the chant) but a deterritorialization that is unique to music as a temporal art, whereby the refrain is continuously altered in the process of being propelled into new temporal places (see Deleuze 1987). This differential energy is fundamental to resistance as a process that relies as much on the significatory function of words and the energetic affect and/or organizational function of free as well as rhythmic sound (e.g., cries as lockdown barriers were broken).


Songs also played a part in the protests, with crowds reportedly singing the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers” (referencing the volunteer soldiers who fought against the Japanese occupation of Northeast China before and during World War II). These performative acts profoundly alter certain conventional wisdoms. With “March of the Volunteers,” we are seeing a grassroots nationalism, assembling people across multiple cities to deterritorialize the authoritarian state that clung to zero-COVID. Calls for democracy and freedom of expression articulated a new kind of collective that falls under the description of the newly imagined community of a nation.


At Tsinghua University and the embassy district in Beijing, protestors sang the world socialist anthem “Internationale,” composed in 1888 by Pierre De Geyter and translated into Chinese in 1923 by Qu Qiubai. Notably, the message of freedom and emancipation is central to both “Internationale,” which opens with the words “Arise, wretched of the earth,” and the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” which opens with “Arise, ye who refuse to be bond slaves!” In 2021, Tsinghua University had produced a polished music video of “Internationale” to celebrate the centennial of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—the same song was sung again by students from the same university in an anti-zero-COVID and pro-democracy protest on Nov 27, 2022. The shift of position could not be starker.


Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers”


Internationale,” Tsinghua University


While the protests were taking place, state media attempted to reterritorialize the field by publishing articles vowing to “unswervingly adhere” to zero-COVID. The official rationale was that China does not have sufficient resources to handle a sudden increase in COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms. Yet this was a problem caused by state policy itself, which has emphasized zero-COVID over a drive to increase ICU capacity and elderly vaccination, which stood at only two-thirds of the population above 80 of age on the eve of China’s sudden reversal, with zero-COVID completely dismantled on Dec 7, within two weeks of the mass protests. The Chinese health system quickly became overwhelmed with reports of patients with oxygen tanks crowding hospital ER corridors and crematoriums running 24 hours a day. With no signs that the Chinese government is planning further lockdowns to “flatten the curve” of rising deaths, daily tragedies now affect everyone whose parent or grandparent has died.  


It is too early to say what the scars of COVID-19 on the Chinese psyche will be in the long term. But it may be the case that the Chinese people now remember the moment of possibility when deadly lockdown barriers were broken, and a few thousand enraged voices chanted out a new vision of society.



Works Cited



Cusick, Suzanne. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Trans 10.

Daughtry, J. Martin. 2015. Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Reptition, translated by Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Tausig, Benjamin. 2019. Bangkok is Ringing: Sound, Protest, and Constraint. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


News Reports

“China Eases Some Pandemic Policies, While Sticking to ‘Zero Covid.’” New York Times Nov 11, 2022.

“China’s Covid-Zero Lockdown in Xinjiang Has Just Hit 100 Days.” Bloomberg Nov 17, 2022.

“Hundreds protest Covid-19 lockdowns at Beijing's Tsinghua University: Witness.” The Straits Times Nov 27, 2022.

“Xi's Iron Grip Tested As Covid Lockdown Protests Rage In Chinese Cities.” NDTV Nov 28, 2022.

CNN's Beijing bureau. “Rare protest against China’s Xi Jinping days before Communist Party congress.” October 13, 2022.

Davidson, Helen. “China Covid protests explained: why are people demonstrating and what will happen next?” The Guardian Nov 28, 2022.

Gan, Nectar and CNN's Beijing bureau. “Protests erupt across China in unprecedented challenge to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy.” Nov 28, 2022.

Gan, Nectar. “Death of boy in lockdown fuels backlash against China’s zero-Covid policy.” CNN Nov 3, 2022.

Kang, Dake. “10 killed in apartment fire in northwest China’s Xinjiang.” AP News Nov 26, 2022.

McDonald, Joe. “As Shanghai lockdown continues, residents face food and supply shortages.” PBS Apr 7, 2022.

Millson, Alex. “These Are the 10 New Covid Rules China Will Follow on Path to Reopening.” Bloomberg December 7, 2022. 

Ren, Shuli. “Is China's No. 2 Staging a Stealth Covid-Zero Protest?” Bloomberg May 27, 2022.

Sha Hua. “China Agrees to Approve BioNTech's Covid-19 Vaccine for Foreigners, German Chancellor Says.” The Wall Street Journal Nov 4, 2022.

Wallace, Jeremy. “Why protesters are targeting Xi Jinping for China’s ‘zero covid’ failures.” The Washington Post Nov 30, 2022.

Wu, Huizhong. “China quarantine bus crash prompts outcry over ‘zero COVID.’” AP News Sep 20, 2022.

Yeung, Jessie and CNN's Beijing bureau. “China’s lockdown protests: What you need to know.” CNN Nov 29, 2022.



“China: Protests break out in Xinjiang following fatal high-rise fire under lockdown.” Guardian News Nov 26, 2022.

“Footage Shows Protests Across China Over COVID Restrictions.” New York Times.

“L’Internationale.” Tsinghua University.

“March Of The Volunteers.”

“Newest video from Urumqi Road in Shanghai.” @whyyoutouzhele. Twitter Nov 27, 2022.

“Now-censored videos appear to show China's zero-Covid measures delaying response to deadly fire.” CNN Nov 26, 2022.

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