China is facing what some are calling the biggest mass demonstrations since Tiananmen Square, with unhappy citizens taking to the streets and at least two foreign journalists arrested.

The unrest comes after close to three years of various lockdowns in the country, which has been pursuing a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy since the beginning of the pandemic.

The disease which would reshape the world as we know it was first discovered in Wuhan in late 2019, with the novel coronavirus isolated and identified by Chinese scientists the following year. By January 31 two Chinese tourists in Italy had tested positive for the virus and the pandemic went global.

The Chinese Communist Party decided to adopt a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy based on eliminating transmission of the virus through strict quarantining measures. Those diagnosed with the virus are quarantined either at home or in government facilities, local authorities impose lockdowns even if there are only a handful of cases, and aggressive contact tracing is employed.

Requirements for isolation have been relaxed, with the mandatory period now eight days rather than 10, but China still has some of the strictest restrictions in the world.

Such is the scale of the response to the pandemic, the Chinese government website lists ‘high risk’ areas down to the level of individual buildings. On Monday, for example, Building 1, Guanghua Road in Beijing’s Chaoyang District was given a high risk classification while Unit 1, Building 21, Guanbei Street was designated low risk.

To some extent this has been effective. The Beijing government can point to the fact that China has one of the lowest Covid death rates in the world – just 0.3 per 100,000 people as of September 2022 compared to 306 in the UK – and after containing the initial outbreak it had only two deaths in the subsequent 18 months.

The weekend brought China’s first officially recorded Covid deaths since May, in three individuals with pre-existing health conditions aged 87 to 91, and cases are soaring with more than 30,000 reported on Sunday alone.

That’s a problem in a country where just over half the 80+ population have had two doses of a Covid vaccine, where there is very little immunity due to low case rates, and where concerns exist that the two main vaccines - Sinovac and Sinopharm – may not be as effective against the Omicron variant. So far preventing transmission has been China’s answer, but that may not be sustainable.

President Xi Jinping, recently elected to a third term by the CCP congress, has called the zero-Covid approach “scientific and effective”, but discontent with repeated lockdowns is growing.

A fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang region which killed 10 was blamed by protestors on the lockdown the city has been living under since August, with claims that people were prevented from leaving their apartments. Chinese state media denies this charge. Other incidents include a bus crash which killed 27 people en route to a quarantine facility, and reports of pregnant women losing babies in isolation due to a lack of medical care.

Protests have also been reported in cities such as Xi'an, Chongqing and Nanjing, many at universities.

The symbol of protest has become a blank sheet of A4. Rather than writing dissident messages, students and others have held up white paper to symbolise “the accusations in our hearts”, as one protestor told Reuters.

As is often the case with China, separating the fact from the fiction in a tightly-controlled media environment can be difficult. For example, it was reported that due to the ‘white paper revolution’, stationery maker Shanghai M&G had taken blank A4 sheets off the shelves for national security reasons. The company issued an emergency notice to the stock exchange insisting that was not true, and said documents purporting to show such a move were fake.

Read More: Chinese officials affirm zero-Covid stance despite protests

What is certain is that a number of protestors have been arrested – as have journalists. The BBC said its reporter Ed Lawrence was detained and beaten by Chinese authorities before being released. Authorities said he had failed to present his press credentials and had been arrested to prevent him catching Covid from the crowd. At least one other journalist, a Swiss national, was detained over the weekend despite Chinese law providing “unfettered access” for foreign media.

The growing discontent has put the CCP in an awkward position – relaxing restrictions may quell discontent, but a spike in deaths due to Covid could cause further social unrest.

So far it appears the strategy has been to try and censor the protests, as well as restricting access to images from countries without lockdown measures. The FIFA World Cup in Qatar is being shown on a 30 second delay, with the state broadcaster avoiding crowd shots showing maskless fans packed into stadiums. That is not in itself unusual – the chance of a Tibetan flag or similar being held aloft means censors generally avoid close-ups of crowds – but has been noted by fans watching on from home.

Crack down or ease lockdown? That’s the choice facing Xi Jinping and his government.