Wulumuqi Road

It was the middle section of a north–south road in the prewar French Concession and was originally named Route Magy (Maiqi Road, 麦琪路) for Alfred Magy, a French officer in World War I. Lined on both sides with dense rows of French plane trees (法国梧桐树), it ran through a neighbourhood of villas, consulates, and Shanghai-modern apartment buildings—notably, the 1936 Art Deco Magy Apartments, designed by local architect Alexander Léonard.

Prewar Shanghai housing was dominated by lilong (里弄, ‘lane’) communities, in old and new styles. Old-style lilong housing (shikumen 石库门, ‘stone-framed gate’) comprised row houses along lanes within a walled border, with a mixture of Western and Chinese design elements, the latter including a walled front courtyard. New-style communities were sometimes built in a ‘garden’ style, without the front courtyard. The close and crowded life of the lilong alleys became the stuff of Shanghai nostalgia: Wang Anyi’s 1996 Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌) is probably the best known evocation of that life (Lu 2004). In the neighbourhood along Wulumuqi Road, particularly towards the west, in addition to lilong communities one could find freestanding villas, lavish Deco apartment buildings, and smaller apartment buildings and houses in the eclectic style (mixtures of Moorish, Chinese, Bungalow, and Deco elements) common to the prewar period.

In 1943, under the collaborationist Wang Jingwei administration, Route Magy’s name was changed to Dihua Road (迪化路), and later Dihua Central Road. Dihua (‘enlighten and educate’) was an alternative name for Ürümqi and was also the Qing Empire’s description of its army’s extermination campaign against the Zungar rebellion in one of the bloodiest wars of the eighteenth century. In 1954, under the People’s Republic, the street was renamed Wulumuqi Road (乌鲁木齐; the Chinese Romanised form of Ürümqi), with southern, central, and northern sections—a name it has kept to this day. Some consulates remain: the Iranian and US consulates, occupying former villas, face each other across Huaihai Road. Several highrise apartment and office buildings built over the past three decades are scattered among the prewar buildings.

More prewar housing stock survives in Shanghai than in any other large Chinese city and, although vast areas have been razed and redeveloped—a process that continues to this day—a substantial core remains, concentrated in the area known as the French Concession. Due in part to the efforts of architectural preservationists, many of the prewar buildings enjoy a semi-protected status. The area thus contrasts sharply with the dominant patterns of urban commercial and residential development in China of mid or highrise apartment buildings grouped within gated perimeter walls—a spatial form that has proved particularly conducive to administration and control. The French Concession, in the centre of one of the most expensive cities in the world, has for several reasons remained a zone of surprising unevenness. Successive housing allocation policies from the 1950s to the present resulted in the subdivision of most apartments, houses, and row houses into smaller and smaller units, often with shared kitchens.

After the reform period, many of those with the means to relocate elsewhere in the city did so. Beginning in the 1990s, a few of these smaller units were recombined and repurposed as more upscale dwellings and rented to wealthier Shanghainese and foreigners. Through the late 1990s and into the 2020s, the area’s distinctiveness and charm brought an admixture of upscale shops, restaurants, bars, and other social venues. New apartment buildings—as one would expect in such a central location—were generally expensive and exclusive. In much of the French Concession, however, the high-end stratum lives close to a substantial number of lower-income residents, many of whom occupy small, cramped, semi-slum conditions: long-term Shanghai-dialect–speaking elderly residents on low fixed incomes and service and other workers from Anhui, Jiangsu, and elsewhere. In much of the area, along with venues aimed at a wealthier clientele, one can find the small hardware stores, repair shops, tailors, and cheap noodle restaurants typical of urban areas anywhere in China.

Wulumuqi Road’s middle section and intersecting streets—Wuyuan, Anfu, and Changle roads—have in the past two decades formed a district of small, upscale restaurants, boutiques, wine bars, and cafés, some in renovated prewar housing and some in elegant, lowrise newer buildings. In contrast to the glitzy luxury of the shopping districts on Nanjing or Huaihai roads, whose counterparts can be found in every large city in the world, this neighbourhood tends towards the Boho-chic. For several reasons, the area is more socially homogeneous than older neighbourhoods to the east and south. The large detached villas and smaller luxury apartment buildings often retain their socially exclusive character. Several of the area’s more luxurious prewar apartment buildings were allocated to government officials in the 1950s and were not subdivided into smaller units, as was common to housing elsewhere in the city, limiting the influx of lower-income residents.

Shanghai’s redevelopment in the 1990s and 2000s, however, was often a violent process, involving forced relocation, official and unofficial intimidation, and unfair compensation (Shao 2013). The southeast corner of Wulumuqi and Anfu roads was the site of one of the more notorious incidents. Maiqi Li (麦琪里, known also as Maggie Lane), a large lilong-style community, had been slated by district authorities for destruction and redevelopment in the early 2000s. As was often the case, some residents refused to move without guarantees of adequate compensation and new housing, as stipulated by law. Following weeks of harassment of residents reluctant to move, in January 2005, three employees of the Chengkai Housing Placement Corporation set fire to one of the houses with the intent of forcing its occupants to move. Two family members died and the employees were later convicted and sentenced. The huge site has remained tied up in the official investigation and litigation ever since, standing vacant for 17 years—a striking anomaly in the middle of such an exclusive district (Dai and Tian 2005; Schmitz 2016: 21–40).

A major early contribution to the neighbourhood’s upscale character was The Summit apartment complex (汇贤居, literally, ‘elite conclave residences’) along the eastern side of Wulumuqi Road, between Anfu and Changle roads—a project of Hong Kong real estate magnate Lee Ka-shing and associates that opened in 2004, in the middle of Shanghai’s post–World Trade Organization (WTO) era of elite prosperity. When built, it was the tallest and most expensive residential complex in the city. The complex also has an interesting political history, including the efforts of activist residents to democratise the Property Owners’ Committee (similar to cooperative boards in the United States), rationalise administrative fees, and other projects. Residents had a high level of community identity, publishing newsletters and blogs, and organising volunteer activities. In April 2022, during the pandemic lockdown, they made demands for more relaxed and decentralised relief and control measures, and in May petitioned authorities for a more thoroughgoing relaxation of lockdown restrictions. It is said to have been the first residential compound in Shanghai to be released from lockdown (A Good Neighbour Beats a Distant Relative 2022).

In recent years, the section of Anfu Road (formerly Route Dupleix, after the French naval officer) between Wulumuqi and Wukang roads to the west has been one of Shanghai’s more prominent wanghong (网红, ‘internet celebrity’) streets, where young Shanghainese, dressed to the nines, photograph one another drinking coffee, eating pastries, modelling purses, etcetera. The Shanghai events of 26 and 27 November 2022 began on the northwest corner of the intersection of Anfu and Wulumuqi roads, across the street from the towering apartments of The Summit and the walled, razed lot where Maggie Lane once stood.

Into the Streets

On 24 November 2022, a fire broke out in an apartment building in a Uyghur neighbourhood of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province. Official figures listed 10 dead; some local sources put the figure at forty-four. Ürümqi had long been the scene of harsh lockdowns and other anti–Covid-19 measures, which followed years of repression of the Uyghur people. It was widely believed throughout the country that the fire would not have been deadly had the building not been locked down and barricaded, which delayed access, and had emergency vehicles not been slow to enter a predominantly Uyghur neighbourhood in a city with a majority Han Chinese population. Protest vigils started in Ürümqi on 25 November, news of which circulated widely on social media. The fire was the latest in a series of outrages large and small in the wake of China’s Zero-Covid policy: suicides, those who died without access to emergency medical services, the 27 dead in a Guizhou bus crash while being transported to a quarantine site in September, the workers of Foxconn in Zhengzhou who escaped en masse from their appalling lockdown conditions in late October, the unemployed, the bankrupt, students prevented from leaving their campuses, and the many and varied deprivations of normal life. On Saturday, 26 November, word spread on Weibo and Weixin—the most widely used social media apps—that there would be a vigil on Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai for those who had died in the Ürümqi fire.

At the northwest corner of Wulumuqi and Anfu roads there is a triangle of open space in front of the shops that curve around the intersection. People began gathering at midday on Saturday, and throughout the afternoon and early evening numbers were small. Some brought flowers and candles, which were placed in two spots. The mood initially was quiet and somewhat sombre and, as it grew, the crowd contained a mixture of those who had come for the vigil and passers-by (the area was always crowded on weekends). Most were in their late twenties or thirties; students were likely fewer in number due to the cumbersome procedures necessary to leave their campuses. Some people were masked and some were not (masks have been quite common outdoors on Shanghai streets) and, in the early hours, some argued that it would be better to remove their masks. As night fell, more and more people arrived, reaching maximum numbers by about 1 am. In the evening, police began a containment operation that comprised a line of officers around the vigil, as well as street barricades further out. Some among the crowd had begun chanting slogans, which increased as the police grew in number:

Freedom of speech!
Freedom of information!
We want freedom, not PCR tests!

A few began to sing ‘Can You Hear the People Sing’ from Les Misérables—commonly sung during the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong and the soundtrack of a widely circulated video from the April–May lockdown in Shanghai.
A call arose for people to hug the police. The police would have none of it, but many in the crowd hugged each other.
When someone chanted ‘The spirit of May Fourth!’, another responded ‘The spirit of June Fourth!’.
People passed out sheets of white paper, which many held aloft. As the police presence grew and the cordon grew thicker and tighter, some began to chant the harder slogans:

Down with the Communist Party!
No to dictatorship! Yes to elections!
Down with Xi Jinping!
Who is this asshole? Long live the people!
Fuck Xi Jinping!

Anyone who has attended protests in the United States would have found the police presence relatively benign: no hard hats, no riot gear, no truncheons. Until the arrests began, the police were generally calm, silent, and impassive. Many in the crowd later commented on their restraint, though they resented the tightening cordons and arrests. Arrests became more frequent as the night wore on. A group of four or five policemen would approach and subdue their target, often with considerable violence and rough handling, as others worked to block anyone in the crowd from trying to help. The arrestee would be loaded into a van and driven away. Several people have noted a significant change in the public attitude towards arrests. It was quite common when people were being arrested for others—participants, onlookers, neighbourhood residents—to come to their aid, sometimes shouting: ‘No arrests! Let them go!’ On Sunday night, the entrance to one apartment at the intersection of Wulumuqi and Fuxing roads had been roped off with police tape. When one young person fleeing arrest tried to run inside, residents in front of the building rushed to his aid and clashed with the police. Similar displays of solidarity with arrestees were reported from other cities as well.

People continued arriving into the night, joining the crowd at the intersection and nearby points. The later arrivals would have known that this was not just a quiet vigil and may have thought that something like a movement had begun. They collected in various spots, chanting slogans, and occasionally making feints towards the police lines. Many of those who did were arrested and those standing nearby were sometimes taken as well. There were many police vans and buses at the ready, lining nearby streets. Into the early hours of Sunday morning, the crowd had grown more restive, the slogans grew more politically pointed, arrests grew apace, and the police became more aggressive. Crowd-control tactics remained the same—a kind of soft kettling: split and separate the crowds, contain, move people along. By 5.30 am or so, the area was mostly cleared.

It will be some time before a clearer picture of the fate of those arrested emerges. Reports suggest most were released relatively quickly, which was viewed as a hopeful sign. One young woman reported that after being arrested about 3.30 am on Sunday, she was taken to a police station, questioned in a desultory manner, and kept in the building until later in the day. She was not held in a cell. The loud conversations of the police officers kept her awake all night, but she reported no harsh treatment. Her phone was confiscated, as is always the case, but she was able to retrieve it on Monday. It is not uncommon in such situations for phones to be kept for a month.


Greater area of the Wulumuqi Road protests.


This map shows the scene on Sunday, 27 November. Streets marked in blue represent the prohibited zone: no cars or bicycles were allowed to pass; pedestrians could move somewhat more freely, depending on the time of day, though they were not allowed to gather. Red circles with a white line represent police barricades across the width of the street. Streets outside the prohibited zone were lined with police cars, vans, and buses. Orange and red dots represent entrances to the Changshu Road subway station. The thin black line between Wulumuqi and Yongfu roads is a small alley that gave access to the prohibited zone; it was neither blocked nor used; police and crowds were likely unaware of its existence.

Those who came on Sunday found a different scene than the day before. There was a much heavier police presence, of course, and barricades preventing passage, as indicated on Map 1. There was no entry to the Anfu–Urumqi Road triangle, and Anfu Road was closed, as marked, though it was possible for some people to cross the street. Limited pedestrian traffic was allowed on Wulumuqi Road and was largely confined to the footpaths. A widely circulated video from Sunday’s events showed a young man holding a bunch of flowers, walking back and forth across Wulumuqi Road at the Anfu Road intersection, taunting the police. After a few passes, he, too, was arrested in the usual rough way, and several who sought to go to his aid were subdued as well. His arrest revealed the presence of plainclothes police, who were likely there in large numbers. Special operations police, with distinctive uniforms, were on the scene as well.

In the evening, the crowd had grown in number, but was more dispersed. As Sunday evening wore on, news of protests in Ürümqi, Korla, other parts of Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan, Lanzhou, Guangzhou, and other cities had spread through the crowds and around the country. At about 9 pm, there was a small group outside the US Consulate (marked on the map), and further along Wulumuqi Road there were calls to join them. One group on the footpath trying to reach the consulate was prevented from doing so. Another fairly large crowd had been kettled into the area in front of the subway entrance at the intersection of Wuyuan and Changshu roads. Other crowds gathered at two spots on Wuyuan Road. Further to the east, a crowd gathered on Huating Road, north of the intersection with Yanqing Road. South of this intersection, all the way to the subway entrance on Huaihai Road, stood a group of about 100 police—presumably there to block access from the subway station. Another crowd, about 200-strong, had gathered at the point nearest the prohibited zone on Changle Road near its intersection with Wulumuqi Road, not far from the police barricades. There were far fewer people holding white paper than on Saturday, and sporadic chanting. Arrests continued into the night and, by early Monday morning, the greater area was wholly cleared.

By Sunday night, bars, cafés, and most restaurants in the area on the map north of Huaihai Road and south of Huashan Road, from Fumin Road to Wukang Road, had been ordered to close. Most fruit and vegetable stores remained open. The area around the intersection of Fumin, Changle, Yanqing, and Donghu roads, at the far right of Map 1, has long been one of the liveliest nightlife spots in the city. A small group of people sat on a bench in front of one of the closed bars, discussing the events of the previous two nights. A smartly dressed couple, out for a night on the town, approached them and asked why everything was closed. Though the police barrier at Changle and Changshu roads was visible to the west, the uneven distribution of information—depending on which Weixin or Weibo feed one read—made it possible to be quite near the scene yet unaware that anything was happening.

The weather turned cold and rainy on Monday. The area had been cleared, but municipal workers worked into the night lining Anfu Road and other nearby streets with the blue barriers familiar from the lockdown days. The blockades marked on Map 1 remained, but bicycles and pedestrians were allowed through. The police presence had been greatly reduced; officers gathered at the subway stops and were stationed at all intersections approaching the area. There were no crowds. If anyone was seen taking a photo, police would ask to see it; if they met resistance—such checks are illegal—they would not press the matter. There had been an announcement on social media—its provenance was unknown and many questioned its legitimacy—announcing a gathering on Monday night at People’s Square, a few kilometres to the east, which had previously been the usual spot for protests in Shanghai. There were indeed more police around the square than around Wulumuqi Road on Monday night, but the numbers were not overwhelming. Officers stationed at subway exits near the square occasionally stopped passers-by and asked to inspect their mobile phones, checking for Twitter, Telegram, and other forbidden apps. Word had spread that these checks were taking place and those in the know could download a fake home screen on which all apps were either anodyne or patriotic.

Over the week following the protests, some attendees whose presence had been identified through facial recognition software or other means were asked to report to the police. Their names and other information were recorded, but it is yet unclear whether any were arrested. Although there have since been no large-scale gatherings in the city, beginning on Monday, 28 November, there have been reports of small incidents all over the city, mostly protests over threatened lockdowns of buildings or communities. Some of these protests may have been successful. The lockdown of an apartment complex on Huaihai Road on 5 December ended after a few hours; such speed had previously been rare. There are also reports of sporadic vandalism of PCR testing stations—a tactic also used elsewhere in the country.

Countrywide Protest

The Ürümqi demonstrations touched off these events while those in Shanghai further opened a space for action that spread throughout the country. The major demonstrations elsewhere in the country—mostly on Sunday, 27 November—showed considerable social, spatial, and tactical variety. The Ürümqi demonstration and vigil beginning on 25 November—the earliest in the country—was the first political action in the People’s Republic in which Han Chinese and Uyghur people marched together. In Chengdu, a vigil on Sunday night grew rapidly in size, turning into a 3-kilometre-long march through the centre of the city that included thousands of people. On 11 May, at a protest over a Chengdu high school student’s death under mysterious circumstances, a large group of high school students, along with some of their parents, had gathered at the school in a protest vigil, with many carrying white chrysanthemums. The flowers reappeared on the night of 27 November in Chengdu. Following the many arrests, demonstrators gathered outside police stations to demand the release of those arrested.

The Wuhan demonstration on 27 November was one of the biggest in the country. It centred on Hanzheng Road in the Hankou area—a district far from the universities and more blue collar in character in a neighbourhood dominated by redistribution centres and small shops catering to traders from towns and villages in Hubei and elsewhere in central China. Deprived of their livelihoods due to the forced closure of their shops, thousands of shopkeepers, workers, and residents marched down Hanzheng Road, methodically smashing down the blue barriers that lined the street. In Guangzhou, many workers deprived of their livelihoods also participated, and their demonstrations lasted through the week.

The scene at Wulumuqi Road had a prominent place in the social media ecology, and the massive and rapid uploading of photos and videos proved too much for the Weixin and Weibo censors to handle. Nearly every confrontation played out in real time on phone screens around the country and throughout the world. At the Liangma River protests in Beijing on Sunday night—another of the larger demonstrations—mixed with the cries for freedom, an end to PCR testing and lockdowns, and other demands were cries and placards exhorting the crowd to ‘stand with Shanghai’. Pictures of foreign media coverage were widely reproduced as well. The Twitter feed 李老师不是你老师 (‘Professor Li is not your professor’; @whyyoutouzhele) has the most complete compendium of videos, photos, and short descriptions of events, and has also posted instructions on how to contact and interact with journalists. ‘We’re going to be in The New York Times!’ was a phrase that came up more than once among the Shanghai crowd.

One participant described in an interview with The New York Times reporter Yuan Li that before the protests she felt she had lived in a ‘liberal bubble’ (Yuan 2022). The two-month spring lockdown in Shanghai had been traumatic for nearly everyone in the city, especially for migrant workers who were often the last to receive food and other supplies, and recovery had been slow (LG 2022). For the cosmopolitan young bourgeoisie—the type typically found on a Saturday on Anfu Road—the lockdown had been a particularly jarring wake-up call, forcing them to face fully the nature of the state in which they lived and the precarity of their perceived state of exception. This realisation occasioned no small amount of Schadenfreude among non-Shanghainese, whether residents of the city or not, who had long resented Shanghai’s particular brand of superiority. Some among the left-communist, Marxist-Leninist milieu—an anti–Chinese Communist Party (CCP), anti–capitalist workerist orientation—hold that China has long been characterised by ‘internal imperialism’: the prosperity of the southern coastal cities and Beijing has been based on the exploitation of the interior; interregional inequality is a direct consequence of the Chinese capital’s spatial fix. This imperial relationship extends, in this analysis, to the discourse about the protests. What the Wulumuqi Road protesters wanted, in this view, was a restoration of their pre-pandemic lifestyle in their liberal bubble: a cosmopolitan life of consumption, foreign travel, and relatively unfettered access to books, media, and information from around the world.

Worker suffering and worker militancy have been constant throughout the pandemic. In Zhengzhou—long a site of worker activism, political mobilisation, and analyses—the Foxconn workers’ actions in October 2022 reached a level of militancy unseen in many years; videos of hundreds of workers escaping the ‘closed-loop’ system requiring employees to work, eat, and sleep in the workplace circulated widely, and were probably known to most demonstrators around the country (Friedman 2022a, 2022b). Though not prominently featured in the recent protests, one can still find news on alternative media channels about workers facing death, starvation, and isolation for pandemic-related reasons. Workers travelling home after factory closures frequently find themselves unable to take public transport due to pandemic measures and can be stuck far from home with little to live on. As one would expect, worker militancy over the past two decades has included critical analyses, investigative reporting, and political work by workers and their allies. These efforts have of course been met with state suppression, including crackdowns, which have intensified under the Xi Jinping regime, on workers’ organisations and sympathetic nongovernmental organisations. Nonetheless, several social and alternative media channels in and outside China have continued to draw attention to the plight of workers during the pandemic. To the extent that the Sunday demonstrations were perceived, despite their varied character, as a single struggle, they contributed much to popular awareness of and sympathy for workers’ struggles.

A Critical Void

In several recent analyses, much has been made of the more universal character of these nationwide protests, which have involved a broad spectrum of the population, including significant numbers of university students, suggesting a civil society-wide display of popular discontent in the most significant outbreak of the political since 1989. The construction of its meaning will be an ongoing process. But November’s uprisings took place within a distinctive political and ideological void. Critique, in its broadest sense—apart from the important work taking place in worker and feminist activist milieus—is probably at a lower ebb in China than at any time in the past 130 years. Critical left intellectual voices, which flourished from the 1990s through the 2010s, scarcely exist. A depressingly large number of former leftists have cast their lot with the state and the past few years have seen some of them extolling the Chinese Dream, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the strengthening of state capacity. During the lockdown, one Shanghai intellectual once identified with the nationalist populist left dismissed complaints against the lockdown, writing that he quite enjoyed drinking tea in his studio. At a conference in autumn in Shanghai, two prominent ‘critical media studies’ scholars stated—echoing state discourse to the letter—that the current task of critical media studies was to ‘tell the China Story well’. Many other critics once associated with the left have retreated into a narrower professionalism or have turned their attention to matters of less contemporary concern. The increasing rationalisation of the universities, where academics are required to publish in state-approved venues and participate in national-sponsored research projects, and where teaching is closely monitored by administrators and zealously nationalist students, has of course been an important factor in the narrowing of critical intellectual possibilities. Yet, it is still possible to write and informally publish work of critical analytical depth, although such pieces are rare.

The state has greatly reduced the capacity for artistic, literary, and theatrical engagement with contemporary events, yet some exist. These include two recent productions in the ‘Theatre of Contagion’ series by Shanghai-based Grass Stage Theatre Company: Clam Island (蛤蜊岛, 2021; ‘clam’ is a homonym for ‘quarantine’) and Home (家园, 2021) (Gullotta 2022). Quarantine (隔离, 2022), written by Li Jianming, was an intimate, more mainstream family drama set during the lockdown. It was staged in 2022 in Beijing, Shanghai, and at the Daliangshan International Theatre festival in western Sichuan. For the Daliangshan production, authorities asked for certain terms, such as ‘lockdown’, to be replaced with their more anodyne official equivalents.

Many have read the concluding scene of Wang Anyi’s recently published novella The Five Lakes and the Four Seas (五湖四海, 2022)—a rags-to-riches chronicle of Xiu Guomei and Zhang Jianshe, a couple born in the 1950s who rose to wealth during the reform period—as a reflection on the lockdown. Its final scene begins with a reflection: ‘Xiu Guomei believed that all things had an ending but hadn’t imagined an ending like this.’ As Zhang Jianshe dies in a freakish workplace accident, ‘[H]e saw a large dark cloud bearing down on him, but he couldn’t move. “What’s happening?”, he wondered, as all became shrouded in darkness’ (Wang 2022: 155).

The colophon immediately following this last sentence and giving the date of the novella’s completion reads ‘24 April 2022, Shanghai’—one month into the city’s lockdown (Wang 2022: 155, translations mine).

Such feelings of dread and foreboding quickened as the Dynamic Zero-Covid policy stretched into the autumn. The Twentieth Congress of the CCP in mid October was a clear confirmation of President Xi’s consolidation of absolute power. When the ‘20 Points’ announcing a more relaxed anti-Covid policy were released on 11 November, there was widespread anticipation that the loosening had begun. This exacerbated the gloom that descended when initial official policy relaxations, such as in Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, were almost immediately reversed. Early December saw new policy relaxations in Shanghai and elsewhere in the country; as of 3 December, proof of PCR tests was no longer required to ride the Shanghai subway. On Sunday, 4 December, there were announcements in several areas of the country promising significant changes in anti-Covid policy, but these seemed to be restricted to places controlled by Xi’s closest associates. Policy relaxation will be understood by many as a response to the protests, but experience has shown that such relaxation can be tentative. Some feel that these concessions might be matched by a more intensive crackdown on political dissidence. We’ll see.

Many at Wulumuqi Road, as well as at similar protests around the country, are new to political life, and many have doubtless experienced the euphoria that comes from standing together in defiance of a repressive authority, especially after so many years of social quiescence and months of isolation. The heady feeling of being part of a historical turning point will create resources of affect, reflection, and the will to action that could take many and varied forms in the years to come, whatever the character of state repression or conciliation. Such awakenings should not be dismissed, even when initially expressed in calls for liberal and not radical reforms. The near total absence of a substantial body of critical reflection, analysis, and theorisation, however, will make more difficult the formation of a new political subjectivity, even for those who desire it. This void contrasts sharply with the analytical resources that existed in 1989, as well as during the high tide of worker activism earlier in this century (Franceschini and Sorace 2021). Debates within civil society across the political spectrum were quite common from the early 2000s to 2016 or so, during what I have referred to elsewhere as the ‘WTO years’ (Connery 2020), and their absence in the Xi era has been striking.

Social media has been indispensable in giving the movement its nationwide, and even worldwide, character. Yet, the nature of the medium—image-saturated, brief in exposition, affect-heavy, and engineered for low attention spans—has its limitations.


This photograph of two workers carrying off a blue and white road sign, reading ‘乌鲁木齐中路 Middle Wulumuqi Road’, quickly became one of the movement’s dominant memes: behold the state, engaged in a clumsy and futile act of erasure! The photo was disseminated on social media all over the world, and demonstrators in China and elsewhere have been photographed holding up reproductions of the sign, as if to say: ‘Wulumuqi Road lives’ or ‘We are all on Wulumuqi Road’. One video posted on social media—and so far there has been little comment about its fakeness—shows a new sign with a new street name, ‘乌中路 Wuzhong Road’, the first and last characters of the street’s full name, and goes on to ridicule the state for thinking that changing a name can erase history. There was in fact a Wulumuqi Road sign taken down during the construction that has recently pervaded the neighbourhood, but from Sunday, 27 November until the time of writing, the many Wulumuqi Road signs are intact and in place. We all know that memes need no basis in reality. This one made for a good image and a good story: a sign taken for wonders. But it will take time and work to understand what has happened, and likely even more time to see, in the seeds of time, which grains will grow and which will not.

5 December 2022, Shanghai


In a world without fear of the consequences of guilt by association, this would be a long and detailed paragraph expressing my deep gratitude to the many people who took considerable time and effort to help with information gathering and analysis, provided additional useful material, and who reviewed and critiqued earlier drafts. You know who you are; I am very deeply grateful. I’m also very grateful for Yuan Li’s recordings of her interviews with participants in the Shanghai events, as cited in the text (see Yuan 2022). My apologies for any errors and omissions; one can only do one’s best in media res.


[1] See also Shu Haolun’s 2011 documentary Nostalgia (乡愁), about life in Dazhongli, the community in which he grew up, a film he made just before the community was razed for redevelopment.
[2] Several days after the Wuhan protests, the government announced that shops could re-open, subject to further closure in the event of positive Covid tests.
[3] For an example of this discourse, see Chuang 2019.


Featured Image: Mock up of  Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis. PC: Wikimedia Commons.



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Christopher Connery

Christopher Connery teaches in the Literature Department at the University of California Santa Cruz and in the graduate programme in Cultural Studies at Shanghai University. He has been a member of the Grass Stage theater troupe since 2010, participating as writer, actor, political consultant, brick carrier, and other roles. He has also worked as a psychogeographer in Shanghai, on projects that included The Alley Plays (巷子戏, 2012) and the ongoing Suzhou Creek Project (走河, 2015–). He has published on early imperial Chinese culture, the figure of the ocean in capitalist geo-mythology, the global 1960s, and contemporary China. Recent essays have appeared in boundary 2, Historical Materialism, 热风学术, and the New Left Review.

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