Chinese protesters direct their anger directly at Xi Jinping

Nearly three years after China’s restrictive approach to managing Covid-19, President Xi Jinping is being held accountable as public anger floods the streets.

In Shanghai, protesters used call-and-answer chants over the weekend to demand political change. Crowds chanted “Freedom” in Beijing. In other major cities, protesters marched with blank sheets of paper — a swipe at government censorship.

China experts say the protests are unlikely to translate into a leadership change, at least in the short term. Still, Beijing faces a difficult dilemma. It could lift restrictions and risk a large and potentially deadly wave of Covid infections that could undermine its credibility. Or it could crack down on the protesters and stick to a strict pandemic strategy that large segments of the population have clearly had enough of.

Neither option is suitable for stability-oriented leadership.

Widespread and public expressions of political grievances are extremely rare in a country where people have long agreed to obey party authorities – as long as they bring prosperity and provide citizens with relative freedom in their personal lives.

People chanted slogans and chanted for political change on a street in Shanghai on Sunday.


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hector retamal/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Police cars were parked on a Shanghai street on Monday, a day after rare demonstrations were held.


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hector retamal/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The protests contrasted the deterioration of that social contract, demonstrating that the rising economic and social costs of China’s zero-Covid policy — coupled with an increasingly authoritarian regime’s zero tolerance for dissent — are driving many to a sort of breaking point.

Demonstrations are not uncommon in China, but they are largely about local grievances such as unpaid wages, land disputes or pollution. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the party has made it a priority to prevent nationwide protests of a political nature.

The current wave of unrest began last week in the remote northwestern region of Xinjiang after 10 people died in a fire. Residents argued Covid restrictions were partly responsible for slowing rescuers and contributing to the death toll. Officials said some barriers had to be moved, but attributed the delay to parked cars getting in the way.

In the days since, anger has spread across China. On Monday, authorities swung into action to prevent new protests, including dozens of uniformed and undercover officers swarming the area around a highway bridge in Beijing where a lone protester put up a banner denouncing Mr Xi in October. On Sunday, protesters chanted rules from the banners.

In a rare display of defiance, crowds in China gathered for the third night as protests against Covid restrictions spread to Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. People held blank sheets of paper, symbolic of censorship, demanding the resignation of the Chinese president. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The turmoil also underscored how anger over the Covid restrictions has united people of diverse social backgrounds – from migrant workers assembling iPhones in central China and residents of the remote region of Xinjiang to college students and middle-class urbanites in the country’s largest cities. .

“The mass protests represent the biggest political crisis for Xi,” said Minxin Pei, editor of the quarterly academic magazine China Leadership Monitor. “It is the first time in recent decades that protesters from a broad coalition of social groups have directly challenged both the top leader himself and the party.”

Students staged a small protest at Tsinghua University in Beijing on Sunday.


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Associated Press

Sudden reopening could lead to millions of intensive care admissions in a country with fewer than four ICU beds per 100,000 people, and where many elderly people are still not fully vaccinated, according to public health experts and official data. Moreover, such a compromise would send a signal to the general public that mass protests are an effective means of bringing about change, not something the government would like to encourage.

On the other hand, sticking to the zero-Covid policy could fuel even greater public resentment against the leadership, with consequences that are hard to foresee.

“Xi’s leadership is at stake,” said Yuen Yuen Ang, a China-focused political scientist at the University of Michigan. “If they compromise and ease zero-Covid, they fear it will encourage mass protests. If they repress more, it will lead to broader and deeper grievances.”

Ms Ang and others believe the protests are unlikely to lead to a radical policy change. Rather, a likely outcome is a combination of selective relaxation of controls and harsh retaliation against selected protesters.

Protesters and police lined the streets in Beijing on Monday. Anger over China’s Covid restrictions has united people from different social backgrounds.


Photo:

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

“The danger is that if the leadership responds with repression, it could put China in a vicious circle of control, leading to more grievances, more control,” Ms. Ang added.

China’s Covid struggle underscores the limits of a political system where a lack of public debate has made it difficult to adjust policies as other countries have done.

Many public health experts say Beijing has missed the window to create a gradual exit plan from zero-Covid. Over the past three years, the government has spent huge resources building more and more quarantine facilities and expanding mass testing capabilities, while China’s progress in developing more effective vaccines has been slow.

Thanks in part to Beijing’s early successes in fighting infections, the Chinese population has developed little natural immunity. It only has access to homegrown vaccines that are less effective than some of the global alternatives.

A neighborhood in Beijing where access is restricted due to Covid regulations.


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Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

Notably, negotiations between China and the European Union over the importation of mRNA vaccines from the bloc fell apart nearly two years ago, according to people familiar with the matter, after Beijing insisted that Europe recognize Chinese jabs.

Beijing has also so far resisted approval of large-scale adoption of the mRNA vaccine co-developed by Pfizer Inc.

and BioNTech SE,

a decision that health care and foreign policy experts attribute in part to China’s strained relations with the US

Mr. Xi and the party have faced public anger before, particularly during the early days of the pandemic, when emotions ran high over the death from the virus of Li Wenliang, a young doctor in Wuhan city who was sentenced for canceling an early alarm. Ultimately, much of the country’s anger was directed at local authorities.

In the years since, Mr Xi has strongly identified with the zero-Covid strategy. That now makes him the natural target of angry protesters and has also made it almost impossible to change course without diminishing his status. In particular, an article in People’s Daily on Sunday continued to emphasize the importance of sticking unwaveringly to existing Covid control policies.

A Covid testing station in Shanghai on Monday. The government has built quarantine facilities and expanded mass testing capabilities, while development of more effective Covid vaccines has been slow.


Photo:

Bloomberg News

As repeated lockdowns kept businesses closed and unemployment soared, some hoped there would be a shift away from the zero-Covid strategy once an October party conclave that gave Mr Xi another five-year term was over.

As long as the top leader felt politically secure enough, those people argued, he would want to adjust policies to help the economy – which is still important to the leaders despite the increased emphasis on ideology and party control.

Businesses and investors alike cheered when Beijing unveiled plans earlier this month to “optimize and adjust” its Covid policies, including shortened quarantine restrictions. Many market analysts saw the move as the start of a gradual exit from zero-Covid.

However, as the number of Covid cases picked up again with the colder season, local officials across the country again imposed strict restrictions for fear of putting their jobs on the line. Keeping Covid under control has remained the overarching political priority for places also struggling to restart economic activity.

The contrast of China’s ongoing Covid lockdowns as the rest of the world has moved on has become more apparent over the past week as many Chinese football fans have watched TV footage of thousands of maskless spectators cheering in stadiums during the World Cup in Qatar.

Then came the deadly blaze in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where residents struggled with lockdowns lasting more than 100 days, prompting protesters across the country to brave the risks of expressing dissent to seek change.

People lit candles in Beijing on Sunday for victims of a deadly fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.


Photo:

Bloomberg News

Write to Lingling Wei at [email protected]

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