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.