Hong Kong: Protests have burst out spontaneously in a number of Chinese cities. Dissatisfaction with the government’s zero-tolerance COVID policy appears to be the primary catalyst, but there are unprecedented instances of citizens expressing their anger at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman Xi Jinping.
China is a nation of 1.4 billion people, ruled by an authoritarian government unable to abide dissent. China has 106 cities possessing populations more than one million, so a few hundred, or even a thousand, people gathering on a street does not yet constitute “mass” protests.
However, a lack of numbers does not detract from their sheer bravery, as these people are willing to be dragged away and detained by this Orwellian police state. The CCP leadership is no doubt startled, especially after the choreographed triumph of last month’s 20th National Congress where Xi was crowned lord of all for at least five more years. His authority was supposed to be paramount, so sudden outbursts in multiple locations will have the CCP concerned.
Perhaps the most important question is how deep does this public anger actually go, and will these protests sustain themselves for long? It is far too early to make predictions, and it would certainly be a mistake to conclude that these protests echo those culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
Professor William Hurst, the Chong Hua Professor of Chinese Development at Cambridge University in the UK, described the protests as “novel, interesting and potentially quite important”. They need to be examined in context. Protests since 1989 can be divided into five main strands, according to Hurst: labor protests; rural protests; student protests; urban governance protests; and systematic political dissent.
Taking labor protests as an example, hundreds of thousands of laid-off employees from state-owned enterprises, as well as migrant workers, have taken to Chinese streets before. They demand workplace protection, union rights or welfare benefits, but there are minimal cross-regional or cross-strand linkages.
Similarly, rural protests might revolve around things such as corrupt officials or provision of public goods. Student protests have been rare and, if they do occur, might focus on campus or philosophical issues. Typically, Hurst said, “Each of these has usually been disaggregated locally and separated from the others.” In other words, the five strands tend not to overlap.
Hurst continued: “Generalized political dissent is very rare in its expression, but we’ve seen it from time to time, as in the Charter 08 movement [a manifesto signed by Chinese dissidents] and other manifestations. Usually repressed quickly and harshly, its impact has mostly been confined to a small set of cosmopolitan intellectuals.”
There has been mass ethnic or minority unrest – obvious examples being Tibetans and Uyghurs – but these generate minimum resonance with the Han population. Indeed, unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang has been harshly repressed since about 2013.
Hurst summarized: “What has happened in the past 24 hours is novel in that protesters have appeared on the streets in multiple cities with apparent knowledge of what is happening in other parts of the country. They’re all mobilizing around COVID, but this is refracted through distinct lenses.” For example, workers in Zhengzhou are engaged in labor protests, with zero-COVID acting as a frame of reference for their grievances.
“Finally,” Hurst said, “we’ve seen a few sensational incidents of generalized protest, but in the past 24 hours crowds in at least one or two cities have appeared overtly calling for Xi Jinping to leave office and for the CCP to lose power. The protesters in these crowds don’t look to be either workers or students. They appear to have mobilized first around COVID and urban governance issues – in particular, in reaction to the fire and failed response in Urumqi two days ago. But they’ve morphed beyond that.”
The academic was referring to a deadly fire in a locked-down building, which has become a lodestone for protest. Inhabitants of Urumqi had already suffered lockdowns of more than 100 days, and local officials had barred residents inside this building in which ten died. Indeed, people chanting for Xi to be removed and for the CCP to fall are momentous developments. Not even Hong Kong street protestors in the heady days of 2019-20 were bold enough to call for this.
Hurst noted: “By taking up slogans and frames of generalized dissent, as well as at least implicitly signally solidarity with workers’ and students’ mobilization, these crowds are crossing a boundary and helping merge four of the five strands/repertoires outlined above. This is what makes the current moment especially interesting and possibly important and dangerous.”
Protests occurred in such places as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and Wuhan. There was even a protest at the elite Tsinghua University campus and dozens of other academic institutes. Open displays of anger are almost unheard of in China, as people chanted “Freedom!” and others shouted, “Communist party step down. Xi Jinping step down.”
Many held up blank pieces of paper, a protest against censorship, while others waved an exclamation mark enclosed by a red circle to represent deleted online posts. Others in Sichuan intoned, “Down with the leader for life! Down with the emperor!”
Online, the disenchanted raced against censors to spread protest images and messages. China has tolerated livelihood issues before, but Xi’s rigid dictatorship is perhaps exposing deep-seated societal malaise, especially among those of an age that remember China’s opening-up trajectory before Xi reversed course. People urging “freedom” from lockdowns represents a system-changing demand embedded in a livelihood issue.
Indeed, these protests are best viewed through the COVID lens. This is what makes them very different from all previous outbursts, as people react furiously to repeated lockdowns and thuggish behavior by the authorities. It is easier for disparate protestors to unite behind a mistake in central policy, than for isolated groups to protest against local mistakes in implementation. Thus, their demands have quickly moved against central tenets of the CCP.
Zero-COVID is Xi’s solution, so he has unwittingly created a vector of criticism against the CCP, its leader and his policies. The usual party argument is that central leadership policies are right, and that any failings are due to poor enactment by local authorities. This approach will probably not work this time, and perhaps local authorities are even relieved that feedback is now resonating all the way to the upper reaches of the CCP.
Beijing indicated it would “optimize and adjust” its harsh COVID policy, but local officials have been stricter than ever as winter approaches. With little appetite to loosen tight COVID policies, people are frustrated and impatient.
These are unlikely to be the only COVID protests, for China must surely endure a torrid and protracted pandemic exit wave as it cannot sustain a zero-COVID policy indefinitely. Indeed, current lockdowns are unsustainable in the long run, for the CCP is copping a lot of hatred and the economy is being hit hard. Perhaps the best way is for the CCP to gradually ease tight restrictions to cause the protests to subside.
Yet mass infections will assuredly occur if China loosens COVID restrictions; on 26 November, China already recorded nearly 40,000 new COVID cases, for instance. Millions remain unvaccinated, particularly in the vulnerable older age brackets, and Chinese-manufactured vaccines are significantly less effective than Western mRNA equivalents. There are insufficient hospital beds, and the national healthcare system is fragile, particularly outside major cities. The Chinese system would come under severe pressure, just as happened in the rest of the world.
One study published in Nature journal estimated that an Omicron wave in China could result in 1.6 million deaths if China’s COVID policy were overturned, and it projected the peak of intensive-care unit demand would be 15.6 times that of existing capacity. Furthermore, few have natural immunity in China.
The CCP’s narrative has always been that it handled the pandemic far better than the West, but under such a scenario, citizens would rightly question this. China’s pettiness about its superior response even extends to television coverage of the soccer world cup in Qatar, with Chinese stations doing real-time cuts to prevent images of mask-free crowds being broadcast. Beijing is still trying to paint a picture of a miserable West suffering from COVID-19.
So, What Will Happen Next?
Hurst at Cambridge University freely admitted: “The trajectory from here is not certain. I can see at least three possible ways forward, in declining order of likelihood and increasing order of importance/danger.”
First off, he predicted: “If we assume no elite backers, the most likely scenario I can see is that the protests fizzle out (as most such movements do in most countries). Having erupted spontaneously in a short period, they will fade away without reaching any climax or denouement.”
If elite forces, such as factions opposed to Xi, are at least tacitly behind these protests, this will complicate the situation, however. There is no evidence for this so far, though. “A second possibility is some form of comprehensive and decisive repression. This could take the form of a coordinated and possibly quite violent crackdown (as in 1989), or it could be slower-motion and at least somewhat less bloody (as in Hong Kong in 2019-20).
Either form of repression would be extremely costly for the state, however (both in fiscal and reputational terms). It would not be undertaken lightly, as it would also raise the stakes. It’s thus a decidedly second-best option and not as likely as the protests fizzling.”
Thirdly, a “much less likely option would be concessions or systemic change. This could range from a relaxation of some zero-COVID measures to genuine political opening of some sort. I very much do not think this is on the cards, and would peg [its] probability as extremely low.”
Hurst concluded: “If things fizzle – or even if the strands/repertoires become disentangled – all will return to the somewhat uneasy quotidian of a few weeks ago. If not, this could prove a critical juncture, but not one that will be easy to read in real time or with a happy ending.”
What is interesting is how the state’s and police response was relatively benign initially. One is used to seeing a harsh response to protests – remember “Bridge Man” who hung a banner from a Beijing over-bridge in October, for example. The authorities have also been pushing the narrative that Western powers and foreign “black hands” are behind this wave of unrest. Such conspiracy theories being circulated help divert blame away from the CCP.
Christoph Steinhardt, Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna, commented that the government will view these disturbances as “sudden public incidents”, for which detailed contingency plans exist.
Steinhardt further noted: “The Chinese state has spent the last 15 years working out detailed response plans for all kinds of contingencies. These plans derive from a national plan and exist at every level, using similar terminology and organizational structures. This does not guarantee that the current situation will be brought under control, but it will certainly make it much easier to achieve that goal.”
He added that “the current situation is much more challenging, because the potential constituency of people with similar grievances is unusually large”. Basically, Beijing has painted itself into a corner with no obvious escape route. A surge in morbidity and mortality rates in COVID cases seems probable unless the government maintains its brutal regime of lockdowns.
The government has spent the past three years trumpeting its superior handling of the crisis. That is now under threat, with attendant loss of political capital. In 1989, there were splits in the party leadership as to what approach to take.
Under Xi, as the recent party congress underscored, there are no apparent fissures. These protests are not yet an existential threat to the CCP, though they most definitely embarrass the omniscient Xi. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether splits consequently occur among the party leadership.
Remember too that all-pervasive censorship, media control and surveillance prevent organized resistance against the government. Furthermore, there is no collective experience or memory of opposition to the CCP. For the vast majority, it is inconceivable that the people could rise up against the government.
China has not committed its vast and overpowering internal security organs, as obviously it does not yet feel the need. Nevertheless, China is facing a volatile situation, and there is at least potential for it to degenerate into the most serious political crisis since Tiananmen in 1989.