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why the covid protest could become dangerous for the chinese leader

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Protests in China hit the world like a bomb last weekend. Are they just an expression of widespread dissatisfaction with the zero covid policy or should the government take seriously the few people who chanted “Xi Jinping, quit”?

Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan are just some of the Chinese megacities where protests took place over the weekend. In Guangzhou, there was a battle with police until Tuesday, and students also protested at around 70 universities. In some places, it has gone from dissatisfaction with particularly strict Covid policies to a full-scale attack on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leader – an expression of political dissent not seen since the student protests of 1989. Is China under the spell of the A4 revolution, as the online protests are called, in reference to the blank white sheets that many carried in protest against censorship?

That’s for sure: it didn’t take long. In recent days, a remarkable number of police patrolled the streets, students were sent on vacation early and rumors were circulating that the interrogation of protesters was already in full swing.

“The Sound of April”

The immediate cause of the wave of protests was a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a few days earlier, which left at least 10 people dead and nine injured. This high casualty rate, as video footage released across the country showed, was due to an overly strict covid policy, which restricted access to the locked building for after-hours emergency services. At that time, Urümqi had been in total lockdown for about three months – a situation that reminds many Chinese city dwellers of what they themselves experienced last spring and was aptly captured in The Sound of April, a film anonymous video based on SMS from Shanghai. In it, desperate citizens beg for food, scold officials who locked them in their homes, and wait for ambulances that never come. Internet censors were amused: the film kept appearing in new versions in the months that followed.

“The Chinese may identify with the victims of the fire more than with the Uyghurs in their re-education camps.” Christoph Steinhardt (University of Vienna)

Why did a fire in Xinjiang provoke reactions throughout China, when the internment of a million Uyghurs a few years earlier had provoked no protest? “I believe there is indeed an identification here with these unfortunate inhabitants,” says Viennese professor Christoph Steinhardt, who has studied the relationship between the Chinese state and its citizens for years. “That was not the case with the re-education camps for the Uyghurs. These were presented as well-meaning retraining initiatives for an ethnic minority struggling with high unemployment. The state has been able to protect this narrative much better.

Real estate crash

Moreover, the fire symbolizes the disproportionate response of the Chinese government, which had already manifested itself in many other incidents. For example, in Guizhou province in September, 27 people were killed and 20 injured when a bus carrying civilians to a quarantine center crashed. Only two covid cases had been reported across the province at the time. Ten days later, people took to the streets of Shenzhen after a full lockdown was declared in three districts after just 10 cases of infection – in a city of 18million.

At a time of structurally declining growth, rapid aging and urban youth unemployment of almost twenty percent, the additional socio-economic impact of covid policy is bad news. Domestic consumption collapsed, there was a huge drop in property prices. Economic growth this year will be 2% lower than expected and the IMF fears the contraction could be even greater.

“Extreme Politics”

This has a direct impact on daily life. Take the millions of rural migrants who lost their jobs, who were locked into business – like iPhone maker Foxconn in Zhengzhou – or who had to survive on flex jobs. These days, many bike couriers spend the night at temp agencies, fearing their apartment will be closed and they’ll be stuck inside with no income. Others denounce the incessant tests and checks that make the trip from their low-cost suburban accommodation to city centers a particularly long and expensive affair.

Many bike couriers spend the night in temp agencies for fear that their apartment will be condemned and they will be locked inside without any income.

Experts believe that the measures also have major consequences for mental health. “Containments in China have an enormous human cost,” wrote the medical journal The Lancet in June, which described the situation as particularly worrying, especially since there is a great taboo on mental health. Less than ten percent of citizens with mental problems seek help, according to the magazine, and not even one in a hundred considers it adequate. According to the medical journal, “Mental health issues will negatively affect China for years to come. The government must act immediately if it wants to heal the wound caused by its extreme policy.

A Tibetan woman demonstrates in Delhi, India, in solidarity with protests in China. ©Getty

Li with the cap

The strict measures are also at odds with policy in the rest of the world. In 2020, Li with the cap could be proud of the fact that there were far fewer pandemic deaths in China than elsewhere, but the cards now look completely different. The virus is spreading faster than ever in China and hundreds of millions of citizens are being ravaged by lockdowns. Even the World Cup in Qatar is a source of frustration, with Chinese viewers angrily wondering why gatherings aren’t banned there. As a result, state television adjusted broadcasts. From now on, the focus will be on the players, instead of large groups of enthusiastic unfettered supporters.

Even the World Cup in Qatar is a source of frustration: Chinese viewers are angrily wondering why there is no ban on gatherings there.

Although the policy is personally linked to Chinese leader Xi Jinping – who won a third term in October – it should ease somewhat in the short term. In recent days, state media reported on the sharp increase in the number of older people vaccinated, the virus was suddenly described as less dangerous and the emphasis was on “a more humane approach”. “With a less contagious variant of Omicron,” Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said Thursday after an expert roundtable, “and with increasing vaccination coverage and growing experience in epidemic control and prevention, a new phase and mission has begun in China’s handling of the pandemic.” Specifically, testing would be reduced to a smaller scale and quarantine protocols would be relaxed.

Preventive repression

It remains to be seen whether the A4 revolution will stop there. Cambridge political scientist William Hurst called the protests on Twitter different in several ways from anything we’ve seen in recent years. “First of all, covid politics is an issue that concerns all citizens, regardless of their socio-economic status. Moreover, the criticisms expressed are much more fundamental than in previous years. The fact that Xi was mentioned in person is absolutely remarkable.

“The fact that Xi was mentioned in person is absolutely remarkable.” William Hurst (University of Cambridge)

Beijing can react in a repressive, expectant and conciliatory manner. Steinhardt: “The problem with large-scale repression is that it causes enormous image damage, both nationally and internationally. This is the lesson learned from the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Over the past decades, the Chinese government has therefore worked enormously on preventive repression. With the approach of large political gatherings or sensitive dates, house arrest is ordered for known opponents and security measures are reinforced weeks in advance. In addition, the state has specific action plans in each of its branches that come into effect immediately if a so-called mass incident occurs. There is a hierarchy of commands, a detailed script, and a compelling structure. This applies to neighborhood or district committees, but also to universities or companies. I am convinced that the targeted intimidation and arrest is already happening. As the Chinese proverb says: kill the chicken to scare the monkey.’

hong kong

“Much more problematic,” says Steinhardt, “which is why the country’s leaders didn’t see the protests coming. Certainly, with digital surveillance, you can monitor only certain individuals, and not a large number of citizens who have never been noticed before. But if I could see from Vienna how dissatisfaction with politics on WeChat has increased, then the government is also able to do that, right? »

In this regard, the authoritarian nature of China’s party-state can be a liability: officials are generally reluctant to inform their superiors of bad news, fearing that the messenger will be punished. This was also the case with the protests in Hong Kong in 2019. A week before a million people took to the streets against the new extradition law, China’s top liaison officer told his bosses in Beijing that There was no commotion, though he was undoubtedly aware of it.

Hu Jintao

Steinhardt: “Although we don’t know exactly what is happening in the highest echelons of Chinese power, a growing concentration of power is striking. Under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, you had another exercise in balancing the different party factions. Xi has eliminated all internal opponents in recent years, and at the 20th Party Congress in October only the president’s close aides were promoted, often people without much national experience. Then, of course, you find yourself in an echo chamber.

For the leaders, the protests are not only alarming because of their political nature, but an equally important issue is that the malcontents are precisely the power base of the Communist Party. The social contract made after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 was that the educated urban middle class would get a much better life in exchange for political inactivity. This social group has been strongly favored in recent decades, as rural migrants and indeed the countryside as a whole have become second-class citizens. With less money and much less and worse service. The way the Chinese government responded to the protests was also very different. While farmers or rural migrants who protested could usually count on harsh repression, the demands of well-to-do city dwellers were often met – at least when it came to practical, non-political issues. The biggest challenge currently facing Xi, writes renowned Chinese-American political scientist Minxin Pei Economiststhis is how Xi is expected to rule in the coming years “when his uncompromising style and ideological agenda no longer please the people of the country.”

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