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News brief: China protests, Congress' lame duck agenda, Georgia runoff

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dozens of protests broke out across China over the weekend after a deadly fire killed people who were stuck in their homes during the COVID lockdown. Demonstrators have been calling for the end of COVID controls, and many are doing something that just isn't done in China very often. They are asking for political reforms.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

NPR's China correspondent, Emily Feng, joins us now from Taiwan. Emily, they kind of look and sound like a big deal. Are they?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Yes, indeed they are. And that's because the Chinese state now has enormous policing and surveillance power. And so for people to be able to overcome that and then to have the courage to overcome those obstacles and get together and protest in dozens of cities at once is really just extraordinary to watch. Now, this discontent had been brewing for a long time, but people needed a spark to come out onto the streets. And that spark came in the form of that really tragic apartment fire that you just mentioned.

And now we have these protests on a scale that just have not been seen in years. They were peaceful street protests in basically every major city across the country, as well as about 70 universities ranging from Xi'an in the west to Shanghai in the south to Beijing in the north, just to list a few of these cities. Here's a protest from Sunday afternoon at Xinhua University in Beijing. This is also the university, by the way, that's the alma mater of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: These are students shouting, "We want rule of law, and we want democracy." And many of the protesters across China are also holding up blank pieces of paper to symbolize, you know, their mute protest, how they've been censored and policed over the years, as well as flowers for the victims in the fire. Then on Sunday night, there was an even bigger protest that happened in Beijing, just around the corner of where I used to live. And NPR's Beijing producer Aowen Cao went and recorded this. And I want to play it so you can hear people's emotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: And that's hundreds of people shouting, "We want freedom of the press, and we want freedom of expression."

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So they're making themselves heard. But is the government listening?

FENG: Well, officially, there's no protest at all. And the government has not mentioned the fact that they know demonstrations are happening in the news. Any video or post about the protests is being taken down in minutes. And you see the state crackdown happening already. People have been arresting demonstrators at these protests, often police chasing down people and then shoving them into these waiting cars. They're filming many of these protests with the idea that they're going to identify and arrest people after.

MARTÍNEZ: What happens now?

FENG: So that's what's really, really hard to say. There's just no precedent for this because while there have been protests in the last couple of years, there's nothing comparable at this scale - a social movement where you see multiple people coming out in multiple cities at the same time in Xi Jinping's China. So what I'm waiting to see is whether people come out again this week and what direction this takes. And then, of course, there's the question of "zero-COVID" policy, which is how these protests started in the beginning. You know, cases are still going up in China. And if the state wants to claw those numbers back down to zero, they have to impose a total lockdown now.

But we have these protests, which show people are sick and tired of these lockdowns, and they're probably not going to obey them anymore. So whether China can ever get back to "zero-COVID" is now up in the air. They're in a really, really tough place where they can't crack down too hard because they might create more motivation to go out and protest. And at the same time, they've got to try to keep up their own COVID policy.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: The Senate will remain in Democratic control, and Republicans will have the majority in the House come January.

MARTIN: Until then, though, Democrats still run Congress. And lawmakers have a lot on their to do list.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Barbara Sprunt is here to walk us through the next few weeks. All right, Barbara, so we have a divided Congress coming up. What is at the top of the list for Democrats this next month?

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Top of the list is legislation to codify protections for same-sex and interracial marriage. This is Democrats' response to the Supreme Court decision that we saw earlier this summer, Dobbs, on abortion. And Democrats want to enshrine other personal rights. The Senate is likely to take this up this week. Twelve Republican senators have already supported this on an earlier procedural hurdles. Another piece of legislation on the docket is the Electoral Count Act. This one is in response to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol last year. Its goal is to clarify existing election law and get rid of any ambiguity around the role of the vice president, make it clear that the vice president's role is strictly ceremonial. And it would also make it harder to object to state counts. This, too, has bipartisan support in the Senate. And it's a priority for Democrats to get done, send it over to President Biden before this whole power shake-up in January.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, because this is our U.S. Congress and it's the end of the year, there always seems to be a government funding bill to resolve. So any whispers or any loud talk of a shutdown on Capitol Hill?

SPRUNT: No whispers, and I can't make any promises. You know, we would never know for sure until it's all said and done. But there's no talk of a shutdown threat from lawmakers at this point. And it doesn't seem like something that the Republicans would necessarily want to have kind of hanging over their heads just before they take control of the House in January. Current funding is set to run out December 16, so it's possible Congress might need to punt a little bit to resolve some issues. But the expectation is that they'll be able to find agreement.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. What are the sticking points, though, this time?

SPRUNT: Biggest sticking point is on funding for Ukraine in the wake of Russia's invasion. President Biden has asked Congress for about $38 billion to aid Ukraine further. But there's growing resistance among Republicans on this type of continued funding for Ukraine without more oversight. Kevin McCarthy, the likely incoming House speaker, has pushed back on the size of this kind of funding. Various members of his conference are increasingly against providing the Biden administration with money. And McCarthy needs their votes to win the speakership in January. So needless to say, it just makes for some tricky politics. And it could complicate getting a quick deal.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the January 6 committee that's investigating the attack on the Capitol - that's also going to dissolve at the end of the year. The committee is supposed to issue a final report. Is that still happening?

SPRUNT: Yes. The committee is also still talking to witnesses and gathering information, as they've done for months. The report is set to come out before the end of the year, which means lots of reading for us. And it's expected to focus much like the public hearings did on connecting former President Trump to the violence on Capitol Hill that day. The report is expected to include recommendations like passing the Electoral Count Act, which we just discussed. And the reality is that come January, with Republicans in the majority, House oversight is going to shift away from Trump and towards the Biden administration. So it's a different ballgame.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. When you're done reading, we'll bring you back so you can do some more reporting.

SPRUNT: Sounds good.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Barbara Sprunt. Barbara, thanks.

SPRUNT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Early voting is underway in Georgia to decide the country's last unresolved U.S. Senate race.

MARTIN: Incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock is in a runoff with Republican challenger Herschel Walker, the former football star.

MARTÍNEZ: WABE's Sam Gringlas has been covering the race. He joins us now from Atlanta. Sam, mentioned early voting, starting all over Georgia today. But didn't some counties get started over the weekend?

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Yeah. Almost 200,000 people have already voted in this runoff. Georgia's most populous counties pretty much all opened early voting over the weekend. And at some polling places, lines wrapped around the building. That Saturday voting day - it came about after a legal fight between the state and Democratic groups who disagreed over whether Georgia law allowed it. The Warnock campaign pushed really hard for Saturday voting because the runoff is really quick under Georgia's new voting law. It's just four weeks. Election officials like Dele Lowman Smith in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, have also been scrambling to prep for this runoff while also certifying the last election.

DELE LOWMAN SMITH: It has been nonstop for our staff and just a very punishing timeline.

GRINGLAS: And early voting - it's going to last through Friday.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, for those who don't know this is how it works. In Georgia, runoffs happen when no candidate tops 50% of the vote, so kind of like a midterms in overtime. So have the two candidates, Sam, tweaked their message at all for this final stretch?

GRINGLAS: Well, Raphael Warnock is framing this runoff as a choice about competence and character. Herschel Walker comes with baggage, including allegations of domestic violence. And last month, Walker got 200,000 fewer votes than Republican Governor Brian Kemp did. So Warnock has been explicitly appealing to Republican voters who did not vote for Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Tell your Republican friends, if you want a practical senator, you've got one sitting in the United States Senate right now. And if you send me back to the Senate, I'm going to keep looking for ways to do the work on behalf of all of the people of Georgia.

GRINGLAS: The Walker campaign is trying to focus on President Biden and Democrats in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERSCHEL WALKER: We got people in Washington that've gotten too weak. All they want to do is let people ride their bike. That's what Senator Warnock is doing. Let Joe Biden ride his bike 'cause he's voted with him 96% of the time.

GRINGLAS: But Walker's stump speech usually veers from that message. The last rally that I covered, he spent way more time railing against transgender people in sports and the military than he did talking about inflation.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. How's that going over?

GRINGLAS: Well, let me introduce you to one voter I met earlier this fall, Cameron Lewellen. In November, he voted Republican for every race except for Senate. So I called him back last week, and he said he is 100% going back to the polls for Warnock.

CAMERON LEWELLEN: My vote isn't bound by party alone. It does actually matter what you say, because I'm an American first and sort of a Republican second.

GRINGLAS: I check back in with another couple, independent voters who split their tickets. The husband will vote again for Warnock. The wife is not sure if she'll go back or not. But runoffs can be really unpredictable. The Warnock campaign says they'll knock more doors in this four-week runoff than the last four months of the general. Republicans say they've got 500 staffers on the ground. And all that highlights the priority here, turnout - getting supporters back to the polls and trying to convince voters who stayed home a month ago to vote by December 6.

MARTÍNEZ: WABE's Sam Gringlas. Sam, thanks.

GRINGLAS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.