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China’s Massive Protests Are the End of a Once-Trusted Governance Model

Local tools of party power have been overwhelmed by zero-COVID.

By , a professor of political science and a China scholar at the University of Toronto.
Protesters march during a rally against China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on Nov. 28.
Protesters march during a rally against China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on Nov. 28.
Protesters march during a rally against China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on Nov. 28. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

In the past few weeks, widespread protests have swept across China, from Guangzhou to Xinjiang and from Apple’s largest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou to elite university campuses in Beijing and Shanghai. Protesters have been chanting “We want freedom, no more lockdown!” and “Down with Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party!” The sizes of the protests have varied widely—mostly in the hundreds, though considerably larger in Xinjiang and Wuhan—but their pervasiveness across multiple localities is unprecedented since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis.

Only a month ago, Xi Jinping was anointed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for a third term. He filled the CCP’s upper echelons of power—the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo, and the Central Committee—with his loyal followers. His predecessor, Hu Jintao, was publicly removed from the Party Congress under the gaze of international media, likely as a staged performance of Xi’s unparalleled power. A few weeks later, Xi traveled to Bali, Indonesia, where he greeted U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders at the G-20 summit with exuberant confidence, building on what seemed like consolidated domestic political power.

Why has Xi’s seemingly unprecedented strong grip on power been met with social resistance of unparalleled scale throughout China? How has Chinese society reached this boiling point?

In the past few weeks, widespread protests have swept across China, from Guangzhou to Xinjiang and from Apple’s largest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou to elite university campuses in Beijing and Shanghai. Protesters have been chanting “We want freedom, no more lockdown!” and “Down with Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party!” The sizes of the protests have varied widely—mostly in the hundreds, though considerably larger in Xinjiang and Wuhan—but their pervasiveness across multiple localities is unprecedented since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis.

Only a month ago, Xi Jinping was anointed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for a third term. He filled the CCP’s upper echelons of power—the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo, and the Central Committee—with his loyal followers. His predecessor, Hu Jintao, was publicly removed from the Party Congress under the gaze of international media, likely as a staged performance of Xi’s unparalleled power. A few weeks later, Xi traveled to Bali, Indonesia, where he greeted U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders at the G-20 summit with exuberant confidence, building on what seemed like consolidated domestic political power.

Why has Xi’s seemingly unprecedented strong grip on power been met with social resistance of unparalleled scale throughout China? How has Chinese society reached this boiling point?

These events were not completely unforeseen. They’ve arisen out of China’s own long-term system for maintaining “social stability” and its intersection with zero-COVID policies. Since the student demonstrations in 1989, the CCP has invested tremendously in designing a stability maintenance system (weiwen tizhi)—which others might call a system of repression—so that it can preempt social discontent on a nationwide scale. The annual expenditures on stability maintenance, ranging from hiring temporary “security guards” to more high-tech control measures, far exceed national defense spending. The intrinsic advantage of China’s weiwen system is to allow the CCP to nip all social discontent in the bud—so that, in the vast majority of situations, it need not deploy the military or the formal coercive apparatus as it did in 1989. Sending the People’s Liberation Army to repress and kill the people would inherently hurt the party’s legitimacy.

One core part of the governance model is to mobilize trusted social actors, such as neighborhood aunties and uncles, as state proxies to implement quotidian state policies, ranging from housing demolition in urbanization projects to zero-COVID, building a system of everyday repression that allows the party to impose its will on society.

As I demonstrate in my recent book, Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China, trusted local figures draw on their social capital to persuade their fellow citizens to give consent to state policies. Oftentimes, this involves coaxing, giving some “carrots” such as bonuses for early compliance, while pulling the strings of social and neighborly relations. Other times, it imposes immense psychological pressure, making it a coercive strategy that falls short of violence. This strategy augments the everyday state power, penetrating society and implementing challenging routine policies through social actors embedded within the community.

These dynamics are amply demonstrated in the implementation of zero-COVID policies. For two and a half years, since the beginning of the pandemic until resistance became more endemic, the mundane tasks of temperature tracking, monitoring people’s movements, and ordering and delivering food supplies have fallen on the shoulders of these state-mobilized volunteers. At the grassroots level, residents’ committees—non-civil servants who serve as the state’s nerve tips—are regularly overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks they need to perform.

At the beginning of the pandemic, these committees mobilized unpaid community volunteers, civil servants, and party cadres who live in the neighborhoods to perform burdensome COVID-related duties. The people in white-and-blue hazmat suits—who have become avatars of China’s style of pandemic control when it was met with high compliance—were at first largely state-mobilized volunteers and faithful implementers of the party’s zero-COVID policy. The implementation of coercive zero-COVID policies was essentially outsourced to trusted social actors locally.

In Maoist times, the party similarly mobilized activists and volunteers to carry out important state-building projects, such as the land reform in the early 1950s that violently redistributed land, lifting the party’s popularity among the peasantry. Mao’s fatally ambitious projects, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, similarly relied on activists and volunteers to mobilize the masses. This strategy of mobilizing the masses is an essential component of the Chinese governing model, giving rise to its “everyday state power” under the CCP’s rule.

So, what went wrong with this strategy with zero-COVID? The success of mobilizing residents’ committees and trusted social proxies to do the state’s bidding is contingent on their belief that they are contributing to the community. In Maoist times, party cadres mobilized activists by firing up their enthusiasm for Communist ideals that emphasized “sacrificing oneself for the good of the larger self.” This intrinsic belief is also pertinent to how their actions are being received by the citizens and if it results in acquiescence or resistance.

Furthermore, as lockdowns became more widespread across the country over time, the workload for residents’ committees increased manyfold. They resorted to hiring temporary workers, including so-called security guards—ruffians and street hooligans—to control people’s movements and maintain social order. Some of these temporary workers have been caught on camera using violent measures against recalcitrant residents, including kicking them and beating them with rods. In some respects, these temporary workers are no different from the thugs mobilized to manhandle petitioners and protesters, such as against bank protesters in Zhengzhou recently.

Still, zero-COVID was initially met with largely high community buy-in throughout the country until the new wave of lockdowns sparked by the omicron variant in 2022 and in the early summer in Shanghai, where mishandling of quarantine created food shortages and online resistance. There, the prolonged lockdown, especially as the rest of the world was opening up, tested the community’s patience to extreme limits. Grassroots implementers of party policy and state-mobilized volunteers had to increasingly deploy unreasonable and extreme measures to extract compliance from citizens, which invited further backlash. When the implementers of party policy lock families up and demand that they hand over the keys to their apartments, when they send people into mandatory quarantine despite negative test results, and when people die because they cannot gain access to hospital treatment, the implementers and masses alike start questioning the policies—and disobeying them. Citizens are resisting and rebelling.

This backlash has emerged from the factory dorms in Zhengzhou where Apple workers fled to escape quarantine to ordinary citizens staging protests in the streets of Guangzhou and Shanghai. Worse still, when people trapped in an apartment block in Urumqi died from fires because of COVID-19 restrictions, any remaining trust quickly evaporated, and impatience turned into rage against the state. China’s earlier success in compliance with zero-COVID has turned into widespread resistance—not only against the policy but also against the CCP in general.

The protests are no longer single-issue but have evolved into anti-system and anti-regime protests, as evidenced in such slogans as “Down with Xi Jinping and the CCP!” and “We want freedom!” It remains highly unlikely that they will bring down the regime at this point, but they signal the end of the governance model that has served China so well for decades.

The abandonment of repression by mobilizing the masses—or the governance model of reliance on trusted social actors in general—has obvious consequences. At the very minimum, the regime will have to rely on outright coercive measures, if not brute force, to crack down on dissent. To be sure, there has been overt coercion in rural areas and in Xinjiang, but likely widespread use of violent coercion to put down protesters in major cities will come at a cost—to the regime and the citizenry. Xi’s intransigent belief in zero-COVID has not only irked the citizenry; it has also eroded trust in the system that the CCP has so painstakingly built. It defies common sense, but dictators often do things that make no sense—in part because nobody is willing to tell them what they’re doing wrong. As Xi’s third term proceeds, we should expect more policy measures that defy common sense and at the increasing expense of social stability—the very objective that Xi’s regime has prioritized.

Lynette H. Ong is a professor of political science and a China scholar at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China, which draws on nearly a decade of ethnographic research in China. Twitter: @onglynette

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