Workers in protective gear gather for their duties in Beijing | Photo: AP
Uniting people behind a single cause is the dream of every political leader. Except for Xi Jinping now. It has become a nightmare for him as people in different cities in China have come out lately to protest against his Zero Covid policy.
China is a one-party state with no opposition groups to organise public rallies. But protests are happening across the country, from the northwest state of Xinjiang to the eastern city of Shanghai. Even at Xi’s alma mater Tsinghua University in Beijing, students called for an end to Covid restrictions. And notably, they also demanded democracy and freedom.
On Saturday, a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Shanghai soon turned into an angry display of frustration over the Covid lockdown. Some even raised slogans like “Step down Communist Party” and “Step down Xi Jinping,” acts that could attract lengthy jail sentences.
In a country where the authorities run a surveillance system that spies on every activity of ordinary people and the police use brute force to suppress dissent, it takes extraordinary courage to hold such protests. One-off protests occasionally take place in China but are usually limited to one area and centred on a local issue. This time it looks different. People in many places have come together on a single issue: anger over Xi’s quarantine policies.
The protests were not limited to China alone. It also occurred in countries like Canada, Britain, and Australia, where many Chinese students are present.
The spark that set off these flare ups was an incident in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where at least 10 people died when an apartment under lockdown for 100 days caught fire last week. All residents could not escape the fire because the building was heavily barricaded as a Covid protection measure. It led to violent protests in the city, and soon authorities started blocking news about the tragedy.
Under Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy, a single suspected Covid positive case in a multi-story building is enough to lock down the entire building with all residents inside for weeks, and everyone is made to undergo mandatory tests almost every day until officials give the all-clear signal. So, people in every Chinese city have been on tenterhooks for months.
Shanghai, with a population of over 30 million, experienced one of the worst lockdowns for over two months earlier this year. People were not allowed to leave their homes during that time, and many ran out of food and medicines. The social media there was filled with rage, despair, and criticism of authorities, but there were no physical protests.
There was an expectation that some of these severe measures would be relaxed after the Communist Party’s congress in October, but that was dashed. Even worse, the man who was in charge of the Shanghai lockdown, Li Qiang, was chosen by Xi as the next premier, indicating that the lockdown policy would continue. According to Nomura, a Japanese brokerage, around 412 million people were under some form of lockdown last week as Covid cases showed a rebound.
Given this backdrop, it is not surprising that frustration is spilling over to the streets. And this anger is working as a great unifier of people—something even the communist party had not achieved after seven decades in power. Some notable examples:
The Han Chinese, China’s dominant ethnic group with little sympathy for Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims, now shares the pain of the Uighur. Similarly, students in China who were highly critical of their Hong Kong counterparts during the 2019 protests in the city now stand shoulder to shoulder protesting against the zero-Covid policy. And Chinese students in countries like Australia and Britain, who had often opposed protests against Beijing by Uighurs, Tibetans, and Hongkongers, are also now rallying against Xi Jinping’s ways.
As the Covid lockdowns have adversely affected every section of society in one way or the other, it is not just the young who are riling against Beijing. From factory workers to tycoons, every section of society is now reeling under the economic and social impact of the lockdown. Their frustrations get more profound as they watch other countries where normalcy has returned.
Those who have come out to protest have started holding blank A4 sheet papers as placards. “There is much say, but we can’t,” a protester explained during a rally. The widespread use of tactics of this kind has now given these protests the name “A4 Revolution”. As a result, the authorities in some areas have banned selling A4 paper, according to some social media posts.
The current protests are bringing together Chinese people across the spectrum, but they have yet to see the numbers that the 1989 Tiananmen rallies attracted. Nor has it generated the same kind of hope for change.
“It doesn’t matter if a few days later, people begin to worship the Chinese Communist Party again or if the government starts to cut off the internet as they do in Xinjiang. This collective action is a breakthrough that will stay in people’s memories,” a student participating in a rally in Chengdu told Vice magazine.
It is unlikely that mass protests like that happened in Hong Kong -- where 2 million people took to the streets in the city of 7.5 million -- would take place in any China city soon. But still, these protests are significant as, for the first time, people in different parts of the country have come out against the Communist rulers. Will this die down or snowball into something more significant is anybody’s guess.
It is, however, a tricky situation for Xi and those around him. To give in to the demands will be seen as a loss of face for the strongman president and a victory for the protesters. It could encourage more protests later.
A crackdown like that used to suppress the 1989 Tiananmen student rally for democracy could end these protests quickly. But given the economic slowdown the country is facing and the general downbeat mood prevailing in the society, it will not be a wise move. Still, when a leader accrues too much power and surrounds himself with yes-men, his thought and vision could get blurred. So, some analysts do not rule out a crackdown.
“The determination that a man like Xi Jinping has to fight back is ironclad,” Perry Link, a professor at the University of California, told the Bloomberg news agency. A “crackdown is predictable,” warned Link.