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Forecast podcast: Deadly apartment fire sparks nationwide protests in China over “zero COVID” policy

About a dozen people circle a candlelight vigil in the shape of a heart. They are on a street or plaza at night. Each is wearing a mask. Their faces are blurred to protect their identity.

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Vivian Wang discuss the wave of demonstrations that has spread across China in recent days, plus more on municipal elections in Cuba, Georgia’s high-profile Senate runoff, EU and Western Balkans leaders meeting in Albania and a possible strike by U.S. rail workers.

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These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Irene Villora, David Wyllie, Alex Moore, Jimmy Lovaas and Vivian Wang.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

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Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.


Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is Dec. 1.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got municipal elections in Cuba, a high-profile Senate runoff in Georgia, EU and Western Balkans leaders meeting, a possible strike by U.S. rail workers and a look at the protests in China. 

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

Cuba municipal elections runoff

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: Cubans will vote in the second round of municipal elections on Sunday. The vote comes after many candidates failed to secure majorities in the first round amid record low participation.

In fact, it was the lowest participation rate since 1976. Just 68 percent of Cuba’s 8.3 million eligible voters participated in the first round and that includes more than a half-million ballots that were returned blank or invalid. 

That all translated into more than 900 candidates not reaching the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a second vote. 

What’s more, the election comes amid a deep economic crisis on the island with daily blackouts and shortages of food, water and medicine. It also comes amid an opposition campaign pushing for abstention to protest undemocratic standards. 

Now, the outcome of the municipal elections will pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023

The elected municipal delegates will form local governments, which will propose half of the candidates to the national parliament. 

The chamber will in turn propose candidates for the state council and the presidential elections.

Georgia senate runoff

Information compiled by David Wyllie

JIMMY: Following a record turnout in early voting, Georgians will decide on Tuesday whether to give Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock a full-term in Congress or select Trump-backed Herschel Walker.

Neither candidate was able to win over 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 8, triggering a December runoff between the top two vote-getters. 

Whichever candidate wins a simple majority of over 50 percent wins the seat. 

Voters who registered by Nov. 7 can vote in this runoff election and early voting has already begun in some counties, following a state supreme court ruling

With less than a week to go, polls show it’s a close fight between Warnock and Walker.

Now, Democrats have already secured control of the Senate thanks to victories in Nevada and Arizona, but a win in Georgia would expand the majority and give the party a freer hand in votes and also committee assignments

A win in Georgia would also likely help the party’s defense strategy going into the 2024 elections.

EU-Western Balkans summit

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: European Union and Western Balkan leaders will meet on Tuesday in Tirana, Albania.

Previous summits have focused on efforts to further integrate the Western Balkans with the EU, including advancing accession talks for non-EU members and fostering further economic integration. 

Previous discussions have also focused on the need to bolster the region against hybrid threats amid a wave of cyberattacks targeting multiple countries.

Now, this summit comes with diplomatic momentum on the heels of a breakthrough EU-backed agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. 

That agreement is aimed at de-escalating tensions between the two countries over a previously planned initiative to force ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to acquire Kosovar license plates. 

Now the two sides will refocus efforts on long-running normalization talks.

U.S. rail strike deadline

Information compiled by Jimmy Lovaas

JIMMY: Rail workers across the United States may go on strike starting next Friday. That is, unless Congress steps in.  

While labor and management negotiators reached a tentative agreement in September, that deal wasn’t as popular with the union members. 

In fact, four unions representing most of the union workers rejected the contract. The sticking points appear to be sick pay and attendance policies. 

President Joe Biden has called on Congress to adopt the tentative agreement despite the union votes in order to “avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown.” 

Lawmakers in the House passed legislation on Wednesday that would require unions to accept the September agreement. The Senate is reportedly expected to take action later this week or next.

Now, considering railways move about 28 percent of the nation’s freight, a strike could have significant impacts on supply chains and the economy. 

Even the possibility of a strike is having effects, including prompting some companies to reroute shipments to trucking

Still, rail unions say Congress mandating the deal would deny railroad workers their right to strike. They also argue that mandating it wouldn’t address rail service issues and could even worsen the situation. 

Protests against coronavirus lockdown measures across China

Information compiled by Vivian Wang

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on the protests that seem to be spreading in China. For more on that I spoke with fellow editor Vivian Wang.

JIMMY: Hello, Vivian.

VIVIAN: Hey, Jimmy!

JIMMY: I’m glad you’re here and I’m sure our listeners are as well. I bet they’d love it if you could kind of explain the protests that have recently kicked off in China. I guess to start, where’d they begin? 

VIVIAN: So what triggered these demonstrations was an apartment building fire in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, last week. It took a few hours to extinguish, and ten people were killed. Some video on social media in China showed some lackluster firefighting, and a public outcry online broke out when people started questioning whether coronavirus lockdown measures had gotten in the way. It’s worth noting here that a lot of Urumqi has been under lockdown for more than 100 days. Local authorities have since refuted these accusations that the lockdown measures were partially to blame, which we should maybe take with a grain of salt, but regardless people got pretty upset – I think a lot of people in China are already frustrated by strict lockdowns, and this fire ended up being a real life example of some of their worst fears.

JIMMY: You know, how common are protests in China?

VIVIAN: So, over the past few decades they’ve been pretty rare – as we know, China doesn’t like to allow public displays of public dissent, so it’s pretty significant for this level of protest to occur, in multiple major cities. China’s censorship and surveillance is so pervasive it’s difficult for protests to make it out onto the streets like this, and it puts demonstrators at very high risk. And the anti-government sentiment that’s being put on display in these protests is even rarer – there are sometimes labor protests or demonstrations over more localized issues, but I’ve never seen videos like these, capturing Chinese people in mainland China criticizing the government and calling for people to step down so openly in public. I do think at some level the Urumqi fire is more of a focal point for a lot of pent up grievances for protesters rather than the main cause. The protests are pretty spontaneous, so they don’t really have organized demands or anything right now – I think they’re mostly based on what seem to be a collective frustration with very strict coronavirus lockdown procedures, but they’ve also grown to include criticism of government censorship and propaganda in the immediate aftermath of the first protests, and there’ve even been some calls for the government to step down. 

JIMMY: You know, I know you said that these were multiple cities, but just how widespread are these protests?

VIVIAN: So, they’ve taken place in several major cities now, including Shanghai and Beijing, and obviously Urumqi, where the fire itself happened. And so the protests themselves aren’t huge by, maybe like, some other international standards, but for a place like China where crackdowns on protests do come down so hard – they’re fairly widespread. I think they’re maybe the biggest I’ve seen in recent years, in mainland China anyway. And the thing about Urumqi, too, is that demonstrators there face much higher risks than maybe other major cities in China – Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, where there’s a significant Uyghur population – they’re an ethnic minority that faces a lot of repression and the authorities there are well-prepared to handle protests and uprisings. 

JIMMY: You know, speaking of the government’s response to protests, how have they reacted to these demonstrations?

VIVIAN: Well, at this point I don’t think it’s been addressed directly at all in state media, though I think there have been some warnings about “foreign interference,” and more doubling down on the benefits of China’s zero-Covid policy. Government censorship has taken down most mentions of protests on domestic social media – they’re on high alert for public dissent on that front. And of course actual protesters on the ground have been detained, though we don’t really have a clear picture for obvious reasons – we’ve seen videos and pictures of police detaining people or facing off with protesters but we don’t have a number and I don’t think we’re going to get one. It also wouldn’t surprise me if people caught on camera got tracked down later and arrested more quietly, so that’s a whole separate thing. 

JIMMY: Well, I guess considering all that and since we’re running out of time, what do you think folks should be watching for next?

VIVIAN: So it’s really hard to say whether the Chinese government’s attempts to stifle the protests are going to work or not, whether the protests will survive into the next week, but I think we could see dissatisfaction continue to grow regardless in any areas experiencing really harsh or long lockdowns. But, the national party line on zero-Covid policy, which is “we’re sticking to it,” is probably not going to change, but we might actually see local coronavirus restrictions ease somewhat moving forward. We’re already seeing it in some places.

JIMMY: Well, Vivian, I think we’ll pause there for today, but I thank you for getting us all caught up on the protests.

VIVIAN: Thanks for having me, Jimmy, it’s always a pleasure. 

JIMMY: Take care. 

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Irene Villora, David Wyllie, Alex Moore and me, Jimmy Lovaas. Our interview featured editor Vivian Wang and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2022 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: Students at China’s Southwest Jiaotong University mourned the victims of the fire in Urumqi during a vigil on Sunday. (Photo: Date20221127 / Wikimedia Commons)

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