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China’s Economic Long COVID

China is hellbent on its zero COVID strategy, but even the nation’s famously compliant citizens are showing their fatigue. Social unrest in China is nothing new, but it not something the world has seen a lot of in recent decades. As China’s economy roared, it seemed that the country was generally on the same page. But the CCP’s refusal to lift its Zero COVID policy, which has sent stock markets in Asia falling over the past week, and it has also had negatively affected crude oil prices.

There are now growing worries that Chinese authorities will take even longer to reopen the world’s second-largest economy. The visuals were jarring: Thousands took to the streets over the weekend in the biggest challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party in years. The market response was swift. Exchanges in Shanghai and Hong Kong closed lower, as did those in Japan and Australia. Investor jitters quickly spread west, with Europe down at the open and U.S. futures dropping. Among the stocks to watch: Apple, which was down nearly 2 percent, as investors worry about the company’s iPhone production hubs in China. Crude prices, meanwhile, fell to an 11-month prewar low.

Why are Chinese protesting?

The demonstrations started after 10 people died in a fire on Thursday in Urumqi, a city in Xinjiang where some residents have been under lockdown for more than 100 days. Many Chinese blamed Covid restrictions, saying residents were unable to escape in time and rescue efforts were delayed. (The authorities deny the allegations). Anger erupted on social media and thousands took to the streets in multiple cities, including Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu, and on university campuses in Beijing, where students held blank sheets of paper to protest widening censorship.

Chinese state media even allegedly censored images of maskless fans at the World Cup in Qatar, after the images had infuriated Chinese social media users. Elsewhere, Twitter was reportedly grappling with a deluge of Chinese-language spam content apparently designed to drown out coverage of the protests. In Shanghai, some demonstrators called for Mr. Xi to step down — an extremely rare public challenge — and many were arrested, including two foreign journalists.

Demonstrations are not unheard-of in China, but it is highly unusual for widespread protests in multiple cities on a matter so central to the party’s signature domestic policies. Zero Covid could be around for a while. The authorities had signaled this month that they would start to ease restrictions that have hammered the economy, raising hopes that the country would soon reopen. But a recent spike in infections has led to more restrictions, with a third of the population put under full or partial lockdown last week.