Post #358: China’s COVID Uprising

Significant dissent in China reared its head for the first time since the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. In many of China’s major cities, protesters joined hands to denounce the COVID restrictions and, though not in all cases, also denounce the Chinese Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping. Western media tended to emphasize the latter agenda, pushing the possibility of regime change to the top of the news when in fact that theme was not the dominant one among the demonstrators. It seems that young people, especially students, were mainly the ones calling for Xi to step down, whereas most everyone else focused on easing quarantines and returning to something resembling normal life. Neither in size, breadth of support, geography, or political impact were these protests anything like Tiananmen.

Predictably, China’s security apparatus is responding by cracking down on anyone who seemed to be leading the protests. But there really are no leaders, just fed up people. The real question is how lasting the protests might be, and whether or not they will evolve into mass resistance. That seems increasingly unlikely: Beijing is now easing COVID restrictions, as I’ll discuss in a moment, putting pressure on protesters either to keep going or claim a small victory and disperse.

“It’s like some national subconsciousness that resurfaces,” said Geremie Barmé, a New Zealand scholar. “Now it’s resurfaced again, this projection of self and of rights and ideas.” She was referring to comments on China’s internet about civil liberties, democratic values, and freedom of movement. For some time, amidst a repression that has become the hallmark of the Xi era, these ideas have rarely surfaced, confined to small discussion groups of intellectuals and students. But it’s questionable how much the general public shares such sentiments; their concern is more likely about the arbitrary rules governing zero-COVID that have forced them into isolation and considerable disruption to their daily lives. They have actually been fighting those restrictions for a long time in their neighborhoods.

The Xi Jinping leadership may appear finally to be listening to the complaints, though that would be very much out of character. “Frustrated students,” Xi says of the protesters, perhaps recognition that he needs to respond to their anger. Most likely to dictate Xi’s response is the severe impact on China’s economy of the zero-Covid policy and the protests. Suddenly, public health officials are saying the threat from the Omicron variant is fading and China’s zero-Covid policy is working, allowing for an easing of the rules. New regulations have been issued that promise quarantining at home rather than in some horrendous camp. Lockdowns of businesses are ending in some cities. Mass testing will be reduced. The Foxconn plant that produces Apple products seems to be resuming production after protests over wages and work conditions.

I can only speculate about the long-term consequences of the protests, which may wither or resurface depending in part on whether the party really is ready to abandon zero-COVID. At the least, the protests have considerably dented Xi Jinping’s reputation and the durability of his leadership at the very moment of triumph in extending his rule at the 20th Party Congress. It is now clear that many Chinese do not approve of his rule, and a safe prediction is that such disapproval is shared by some among the political elite. Given his stubborn character and unrelenting search for enemies since he took command in 2012, he might authorize another wave of repression such as he has previously carried out against corrupt Party officials, dissident human rights lawyers, ethnic groups, and pro-democracy advocates. Moreover, Xi’s ability to deliver on a serious dialogue with the US on climate change and other global issues may be undermined. As always, we shall have to wait and see.

From Mao to now, what China’s leaders have most feared is organized resistance that would challenge the party-state’s monopolization of power. That is not what we are witnessing today, though the protesters’ display of a blank sheet of paper recalls Mao’s dictum that “on a blank sheet of paper, many beautiful characters can be written.” He meant, a revolution. As Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times (November 30), “Historically in China, mass protests have arisen not when conditions were most intolerable (like the famine from 1959 to 1962) but when people thought they could get away with them, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, the April 5 incident of 1976, the Democracy Wall easing of 1978-79, the student protests of 1986 and Tiananmen in 1989.” Students and intellectuals were pivotal to all those protests. Even when unsuccessful at transforming China’s political system, they signaled that democratic thought was alive under very harsh authoritarian rule. Xi’s zero-COVID policy has been a strategic mistake from which he may never recover—especially if the high number of cases we’re seeing continue to rise as he resists foreign-made vaccines and fails to attend to the poorly protected elderly population.

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  1. Hi Mel,

    My rule these days is to lie very very low–biting my tongue all the
    while. So here’s just a taste of the gourmet meal I have prepared for
    you when discursive dining is once again safe.

    Many more 25-40 year olds were gathered in the 17 major cities that saw
    protests than is widely known. Most of the A4 presenters in these
    locations were arrested and questioned for possible links to foreign
    interests, to domestic dissidents and/or to obvious sociopolitical
    malcontents. Phones were confiscated. Some I know were in jail for 18
    hours and were released only after signing guilt-confessions and
    promising to not participate in demonstrations in the future with
    understanding severe penalties would be imposed if they ever break their
    promise. Typical, yes, but the relentless pursuit of networks of
    anti-government interests by an all-powerful security apparatus is
    ominous. There is much more to this but what I lay out here is all I
    feel is safe to say at this writing.

    What I must share is an opinion not being reported almost anywhere to my
    knowledge. Discontent over loss of income and unpredictable chances of
    pursuing personal dreams has increasingly disheartened just about
    everyone. That means the protestors are /fully aware/ they acted with
    broad popular support. Also, discontents are not simply going back to
    work-if they still have a job. They are wondering what comes next for
    them, pondering what should they do now when they have already, in their
    minds and that of the authorities, broken their part of the social
    contract. One might predict therefore that more trouble lies ahead, and
    so far leadership seems clueless. Further dissent will surely accelerate
    a return to a cultural revolution scale social environment, a scenario
    long-planned anyway, as I am told by some who deal at levels way beyond me.

    What will crack the ground and reveal the boiling lava of deep
    discontent would be a combination of out of control infections, the
    subsequent widespread deaths of the grandparents who raise most Chinese
    children, and super-suppression of outlets for expression of resulting
    resentment and frustration. And that is the direction we may be headed.

    Best of health,


  2. Good one Mel-that being your field of expertise….

    We need to talk water sometime… That has always been a field of
    particular interest to me…

  3. Good piece Mel. Very helpful especially given the US media’s terrible reporting on this. ________________________________

  4. Excellent essay, as always, Mel. A question: Melinda Liu, the Newsweek Bejing bureau chief, told Fareed Zakaria on GPS that a major factor in energizing the protests was hundreds of millions of less-political Chinese folks confined at home watching hundreds of thousands of World Cup fans all over the world gleefully spectating and celebrating together, unmasked. Does that seem to be an exaggeration? If not, it’s quite a delightful fact in a way.

      1. Thanks, Mel. Good point. In fairness to Ms. Liu, she did qualify by acknowledging that it was based upon her Beijing observations.

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