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China’s Protests Punch a Hole in Xi’s Credibility

A new wave of social unrest may be here.

By , a Chinese writer and scholar.
A protester participates in a rally in Beijing.
A protester participates in a rally in Beijing.
A protester participates in a rally in Beijing on Nov. 28. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty images

Students and members of the public have taken to the streets in major cities across China, with protesters in Shanghai calling for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to step down—a rare sight in China, where protest is strictly curtailed. Coming shortly after the 20th Party Congress, which marked the beginning of Xi’s third term as CCP general secretary, these protests bear closer examination and consideration for their potential to affect China’s political situation and Xi’s grip on power—and even to usher in a “new era” of social movements akin to the wave of protests that swept the country in 1989.

Commentators calling these the largest protests since 1989 are mistaken. The Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao years saw mass protests that drew tens of thousands of participants or more, destroyed local government offices, and had to be put down by armed police. The crowds in videos emerging from protests in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Chengdu, and other cities are generally small, ranging from several hundred to over a thousand. Rather, it is Xi’s heavy-handed suppression of social dissent over his time in office and his concomitant expansion of public expenditures and targeted poverty alleviation, buying the affections of the underclasses and all but eliminating open public protest, that makes the current wave of protests significant.

A common thread in these protests is people reaching the limits of their tolerance for the government’s zero-COVID policies. The “dynamic zero-COVID” approach the government has adopted capriciously deprives the public of their freedom and rights and has led to countless humanitarian disasters. One such disaster, a fire in a locked-down Urumqi apartment building, was the spark for students and members of the public to protest, as people around the country gather to mourn the lives lost in the fire.

Students and members of the public have taken to the streets in major cities across China, with protesters in Shanghai calling for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to step down—a rare sight in China, where protest is strictly curtailed. Coming shortly after the 20th Party Congress, which marked the beginning of Xi’s third term as CCP general secretary, these protests bear closer examination and consideration for their potential to affect China’s political situation and Xi’s grip on power—and even to usher in a “new era” of social movements akin to the wave of protests that swept the country in 1989.

Commentators calling these the largest protests since 1989 are mistaken. The Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao years saw mass protests that drew tens of thousands of participants or more, destroyed local government offices, and had to be put down by armed police. The crowds in videos emerging from protests in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Chengdu, and other cities are generally small, ranging from several hundred to over a thousand. Rather, it is Xi’s heavy-handed suppression of social dissent over his time in office and his concomitant expansion of public expenditures and targeted poverty alleviation, buying the affections of the underclasses and all but eliminating open public protest, that makes the current wave of protests significant.

A common thread in these protests is people reaching the limits of their tolerance for the government’s zero-COVID policies. The “dynamic zero-COVID” approach the government has adopted capriciously deprives the public of their freedom and rights and has led to countless humanitarian disasters. One such disaster, a fire in a locked-down Urumqi apartment building, was the spark for students and members of the public to protest, as people around the country gather to mourn the lives lost in the fire.

The first Chinese city to be locked down was Wuhan, where the epidemic first broke out. The people of Wuhan silently endured lockdown for more than two months. Tianjin, Xi’an, Shenzhen, and other cities followed suit with lockdowns of varying degrees; these, too, were silently borne. When the entire city of Shanghai was locked down for two months starting this April, the public once again suffered in silence. What changed between then and the end of November?

One key event was the promulgation of the new “20 Articles” policy on pandemic control measures in early November. The policy promised a gradual loosening of restrictions, a welcome ray of hope for a public that had been trapped in place for three years, but when this resulted in a nationwide resurgence of outbreaks, authorities quickly reinstated tighter controls, dashing any hope of lockdowns being lifted. The repeated cycles of easing and tightening, caging people like lab rats, finally wore through the last of people’s patience. Under the government’s zero-COVID policies, everyone knows that they could be the next to suffer—including people inside the system, particularly officials and workers on the front lines of pandemic response, many of whom have long since burned out from exhaustion and overwork. Everybody wants a change—but as long as Xi does not, they will have no choice but to endure.

Sudden as these protests may seem, their broader context—particularly Xi’s actions over his decade in power—made them a virtual inevitability. Despite widespread fears that Xi would return China to the days of the Cultural Revolution, this isn’t something he can pull off alone. China isn’t North Korea, after all: The liberal reforms that followed the Cultural Revolution afforded the majority of Chinese people a basis to make comparisons with other ways of life, giving rise to interests that not even Xi can shake. Closing China off from the world would pose no benefit to the CCP or Xi himself, moreover, except insofar as it might be used to eliminate the system of private ownership.

Rather, fears of a return to the Cultural Revolution indicate widespread dissatisfaction with Xi’s line, policies, and ideals among members of the public, who have consistently opposed Xi’s attempts to shift the engine of history into reverse gear. Xi may have wanted to redirect the course of historical development, but the last 10 years have seen China generally continuing forward in its century-long transition to modernity. Historical precedent shows that during such transitions, growing awareness of civil rights eventually gives rise to public movements and public resistance, primarily in the form of collective action.

China is no exception. One of the ideological effects of the reform years was a resurgence of civic consciousness. This produced the 1989 student protest movement and subsequent waves of human rights actions and mass incidents. Xi has ensured that citizens’ rights activists and other oppositional forces will be sentenced harshly, but he hardly has the power to erase this civic consciousness from the brains of the public. The public simply hid it away for a while under pressure from the authorities; given a suitable chance and fertile soil, their demands for freedom and civil rights will flower again.

The rapid deterioration of China’s external environment, Xi forcing his way into a third term, and above all the government’s zero-COVID policy present a rare opportunity for public protest—and will nurture a movement for societal transformation.

U.S.-China tensions have imposed unprecedentedly severe strictures on China’s development environment, and the country’s economic woes are to a great extent the product of the U.S. geopolitical and technological containment of China, exacerbated by lockdowns in response to the pandemic. The economy continued its steep decline this year, triggering a wave of bankruptcies and unemployment and causing the public’s living standards and quality of life to decline dramatically.

The majority of China’s population was born in the 1970s or afterward: These people lack earlier generations’ firsthand experience of—and ability to cope with—poverty. Protracted personal and family hardships due to the pandemic and economic downturn are not, as time goes on, something they can adapt to—and this will drive them into the streets in protest. From the government’s perspective, this state of affairs is a ticking time bomb. It must be prevented from going off.

But the government’s approach to “defusing” the situation has been to further solidify the monolithic leadership of the CCP and build up its violent control over society, while at the same time partially satisfying popular demands for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Though this has weakened the basis for civic resistance in the short term, in the long term it will both fail to suppress dissatisfaction and resistance and, as state control weakens, actually promote the emergence of a popular political consciousness that will spur a sense of resistance and inspire action. The state’s total loss of the ability to sense and respond to public discontent makes this possibility all the more likely.

The reason lies in the fact that Xi’s focus on addressing wealth inequalities and funding poverty alleviation efforts after taking office forced the government to strengthen its extractive taxation capacity, exacerbating conflicts between the state and the industrial and commercial class. Entrepreneurs are laying low en masse, causing the economy to decline further. A regime that develops its extractive capacity (primarily in the form of taxation) and its coercive capacity (primarily in the form of violent control) while neglecting to develop its distributive and regulatory capacities and its ability to protect the public will produce an imbalance of state capacity, leading to widespread protest. Economic growth predicated on this basis will not only fail to bring general prosperity and social development but systematically create polarizing economic and social disparities, leading in turn to general social discontent and resentment and ultimately severely weakening the basic legitimacy of the regime.

This schema describes China before Xi: The Jiang and the Hu eras saw many instances of protest and mass incidents, but the fat years are over, and the improvements in wealth distribution are insufficient to remedy the public’s worsening losses from unemployment and will ultimately be unable to reduce conflicts between the people and the government.

We might say that even before the pandemic, political and economic winter had already come for China—but as 40 years of economic reforms had left individuals and the government with enough provisions set aside to weather the storm, the public’s sense of crisis was merely something on people’s minds and had not yet translated into collective acts of resistance. Three years into the pandemic, the Chinese economy is at a new low point. The cold is getting worse, supplies are running low, and the impact of the government’s zero-COVID policies has fallen hardest on the public’s fundamental rights and interests. The adversarial consciousness and acts of resistance so long suppressed by the government inevitably broke out: People tolerated it for as long as they could, and finally they couldn’t stand it anymore. The protests now going on in cities around China, led mostly by young people and university students, reflect a reawakening of civic consciousness under the ideological oppression of the state.

The government’s response to protesters’ demands will decide whether these protests will turn into nationwide social protests of Xi and the CCP. Despite some protesters shouting radical slogans, the protests have on the whole remained peaceful and free of violence. Demands from students and the public mainly focus on ending the government’s zero-COVID policy. If the government accedes to these demands—which are shared by a majority of the public—by relaxing pandemic restrictions and agreeing not to take reprisals against protesters, it should be able to quickly quell the protests.

If, however, the government determines that “hostile foreign forces” or domestic class enemies have infiltrated and instigated protests in hopes of bringing about regime change by fomenting a color revolution in China, the only possible next step will be violent suppression. Any bloodshed will intensify conflicts, awakening a long-standing sense of oppression among the public—and protests, which thus far have been limited to large cities (particularly university campuses), will spread across the country and form a surging, nationwide wave of resistance. In such an event, the public will increase its demands to include the end of the CCP’s one-party dictatorship.

It is unclear whether Xi envisioned this as a result of his zero-COVID policy, but clearly he has a sense of crisis: He has emphasized the need for a “spirit of struggle” and called on cadres to “dare to struggle and excel at struggling.” Perhaps, then, he has also made preparations and plans for social crisis and protests. Xi’s umwelt makes it unlikely that he will see the protests as merely an expression of dissatisfaction with zero-COVID, rather than a stalking horse for hostile forces—and if he acts on that understanding in ordering regional officials to handle the wave of protests, it will do nothing but escalate the situation.

However the government eventually handles the protests, their emergence so soon after the 20th Party Congress is a major blow to Xi’s authority and a message that his response to the pandemic over the last three years has been a failure—and by extension that he is not qualified to lead a great nation, which will shake the confidence of the CCP and embolden internal dissatisfaction with Xi, especially at the upper echelons. In embarking on a third term at the 20th Party Congress, Xi showed that there were no restraining forces on him within the party following his successful suppression of opposing factions. Discontent at high levels of the CCP has not vanished, however—it merely hid away, perhaps to be revivified by the present wave of protests. Even so, Xi and his trusted associates are in control of the party and the military, and open intraparty disputes are unlikely. The central government in Beijing will not split—not unless bloodshed escalates to nationwide protest.

This piece was translated from Chinese by Brendan O’Kane.

Deng Yuwen is a Chinese writer and scholar.

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