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As a Chinese woman living in Australia, the past few weeks have been a depressing and worrying time as I have watched what has unfolded at home.
I saw angry young people raising blank A4 papers on campuses and streets nationwide, after a deadly fire in the Xinjiang region killed 10 people locked down in a building.
I also saw many football fans using the Qatar World Cup to express their frustration about COVID-zero strategies, despite Chinese state media trying to cut scenes of maskless audiences at the games.
Now, Beijing has announced an easing of its most severe COVID-19 policies, allowing people to travel freely inside the country again and isolate at home if they have mild or no symptoms.
It's a welcome relief to citizens who have become increasingly frustrated with the country's strict measures, but it also makes me worried.
Over the past three years, the Chinese government spent millions of dollars building lockdown and mass-testing facilities to stop the virus from spreading unchecked among its population.
But scientists have expressed concern over the resilience of the country's health system and its capacity to handle widespread Omicron outbreaks once the state ends lockdown measures for 1.4 billion people.
On Chinese social media, I shared tips on how to manage COVID-19 with my parents and friends, as they had no idea about what to do if they tested positive.
But just as I was texting my high-school classmates who I haven't seen in years, an old memory struck me, taking me back to the first and only protest I attended in China 10 years ago.
It was a Friday night and I was at boarding school in a city in southern China.
The AFC Asian Cup final was due to take place in a week, and a Chinese football team, Guangzhou Evergrande, had made the final.
Since October, the boys at my school had been excited about the game.
Many of them planned to watch the game together on Saturday night after we were sent back home that afternoon.
Yet a week before the game, as we gathered in our classrooms quietly doing our homework, our head teacher announced that all students had to stay in school on the weekend of the Asia Cup final.
We were told senior government officials were making a visit and in order to give them a good impression, students were not allowed to use any digital devices that night.
This meant my classmates wouldn't be able to watch the game at all.
Upset over the decision, the students headed back to their dormitories after class and started to protest.
Dozens of students stood in the balconies and hallways, yelling and chanting that we wanted to go home the next weekend, rather than be forced to stay at school.
I also joined them, though I wasn't a football fan. For me, it was a chance to go home after a long week at school and watch K-drama.
The loud protests soon attracted the attention of the teachers, who came to our dormitory and urged us to keep quiet.
The names of the students who began the chants were also noted down.
The next day, after I arrived for class and stepped into my classroom, I was shocked by what I saw written on the blackboard at the back.
It was a five-word slogan in white chalk: "我们要人权 (We want human rights!)"
And there were other demands.
"We want democracy!" "Give my weekend back to me!" "Freedom!" "Rule of law!"
I had no idea who wrote them, but I remember these big words — human rights, democracy, freedom — struck a chord with 16-year-old me.
It also hit my head teacher, who stood outside our classroom and stared at the blackboard through the window for a while.
Later, he told us that instead of feeling outraged by our disobedience, he was more shocked at how we would use these words to defend our right to watch a football game.
"You are a generation that will do big things," he told us.
Back at school, it appeared as if our protest worked. Our principal and head teacher announced a few days later that students could use the big screen in their classrooms to watch the game, with the condition that we behaved well during the officials' visit.
That Saturday night, we watched Guangzhou Evergrande become the Asian Cup champion.
This was the very same Evergrande Group that would reportedly be on the edge of bankruptcy years later.
I was unfamiliar with the team and couldn't tell you the names of the players.
But I joined my classmates' cheering, celebrating not only Evergrande's victory, but also ours.
Although it was my classmates who chalked the word "democracy" on the blackboard, I don't think most of them understood what it actually meant.
Born after the Tiananmen protests in 1989, we are the first generation that the Chinese Communist Party targeted in their patriotic education scheme, one of the most successful ideological campaigns in decades.
China's patriotic education is one of the country's most successful propaganda campaigns, producing hundreds of thousands of young patriots over the years.
We grew up learning that China is a country that celebrates democracy and freedom in a way different from the West, or with "Chinese characteristics".
We also learnt to prioritise collective benefits over our individual needs, whether it was at school or in society.
This means we see our relationship with the government through a lens that is different from the West, in which we may complain about government policies, but will never see it as the source of the problems.
In 2019, as young Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters marched on streets to fight for their rights, a close friend of mine at high school denounced the demonstrators on social media, calling them "rioters" who created messes.
I also had a classmate who frequently shared the state media's features of China's achievements on social media, although weeks ago they reposted an article calling for governments to take more action on women's safety.
As a journalist reporting on China for an Australian newsroom, I saw that my classmates and I had different understandings of democracy.
But still, I know Generation Z is going to be a problem for President Xi Jinping.
To maintain its legitimacy of ruling China in the post-1989 era, Beijing had been playing the economic card for decades.
It endorsed a market economy, encouraged privatisation, and joined the global economic system.
My generation is the first to benefit from China's openness.
In first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, my peers were exposed to Western culture like never before.
We grew up listening to Avril Lavigne, bingeing Downton Abbey and using iPhones.
We are also more educated compared to our parents' generation, and the internet empowered us to express our thoughts directly, even if we couldn't access Facebook and Twitter.
While we learned about the CCP version of democracy at schools, we also learned about what the constitution was, and our rights as Chinese citizens.
And in response to increasing social anxiety and pressure as well as cost of living issues, China's young people have begun to push back against what they see as an oppressive work culture and the governments' bid to increase the fertility rate.
While many continue to adhere to the country's economic model, they also engage in small acts of rebellion by "lying flat" and refusing to have children.
So when Xi wanted to maintain his political legacy by insisting on strict COVID-zero measures, there was little doubt the younger Chinese generation would be outraged.
Over the past three years, they watched China closing its door to the world, while facing the highest youth unemployment rate in decades.
This generation might not overthrow the CCP as a ruling party, but they would not remain silent when the government adopted what they saw as unreasonable policies.
And I saw this from my classmates too. On their social media, they tried different approaches to test the internet censorship and shared information about the lockdown protests.
Just like what we did at 16.
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From football to COVID-19 protests, here is why the young Chinese generation is always going to be a problem for Xi Jinping – ABC News
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