The wave of demonstrations across China demanding an end to zero-COVID measures is unlike anything the country has seen in decades.
From university campuses to busy streets in downtown areas of the city, people held up pieces of white paper as a symbol of protest following a deadly fire in a Xinjiang neighborhood under lockdown. The most dramatic moment occurred over the weekend, when protesters could be heard chanting “Xi Jinping, step down”.
Publicly defying the Chinese President is a bold and risky gesture. The Beijing strongman recently secured a third term in office, breaking with tradition and consolidating his undisputed power base.
POLITICO breaks down what this means for China’s leader.
How bad is it for Xi?
So far, there is no sign to indicate any significant damage to Xi’s position at the top of the Communist Party.
Still, this is the first major show of public resistance under Xi’s rule, and the complaints directed against the top of the Chinese government are too loud to go unheard.
Xi has made zero-covid a personal political project. With the public now openly protesting symbols of that policy – such as strict PCR testing requirements and mask rules – they will undoubtedly be held personally liable for the public anger.
Ho-Fung Hung, an academic at Johns Hopkins University specializing in China’s protest movements, says the government and society “are in the process of seeking a new equilibrium. The process can lead to conflict and instability.”
Still, the timing could have been worse for Xi had the protests taken place before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party last month, when he was confirmed in office for an unprecedented third term.
How important is public disobedience?
The last comparable episode was the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but that time the demonstrations were much larger and occupied the iconic square in the center of Beijing.
Most of the young people protesting the Covid restrictions this year had little or no memory of that deadly protest 30 years ago. Not only were they not yet born, but there is also no footage of Tiananmen Square available under the censorship regime.
In a way, the most dangerous blow to Xi may be the political awakening of so many young, educated minds who are ready to publicly turn against him.
According to reports, students from over 100 universities have shown solidarity with the protesters. Kai XiaA defector from the Communist Party’s school of thought who now lives in the US
Can brutal repression be avoided?
For now, the police have refrained from taking a bloody crackdown on the protesters, even though arrests have been made. Cases of physical assault have also been reported, such as on BBC journalists. ed lawrencewho was covering the protests in Shanghai.
After hard work, the vigilance of the police was increased on Monday. For example, some streets in Shanghai were closed off with barricades, turning some of the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods into no-go zones.
There was no word of protests in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities on Tuesday due to the heavy police presence, according to the Associated Press.
At this stage, it is unclear whether the unrest is over or the protesters are simply waiting for their next opportunity.
Some universities also announced plans to send students back home ahead of schedule for the winter break, in an apparent move to prevent them from organizing further protests.
How is the market reacting?
Not great – initially. The immediate reaction in global stock markets was pessimistic on Monday, driven by a sense of political uncertainty.
The benchmark Chinese market, the Shanghai Composite, dropped 2.2 percent briefly, while the Shenzhen Component Index, with a focus on tech, fell 0.7 percent.
On Tuesday, however, both indexes climbed 2 percent as there were no reports of new protests overnight. “The massive protests would tilt the scales deeply in favor of a weak economy,” said Stephen Innes, managing partner at SPI Asset Management. Told,
How does the West see it?
In the UK, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly weighed in. “Protests against the Chinese government are rare and when they do happen, I think the world should take notice, but I think the Chinese government should take notice,” Clever told reporters.
European Council President Charles Michel will arrive in Beijing on Thursday he faces the call To send a strong message to Xi to respect peaceful protest.
german chancellor Olaf Scholz Spokesperson Questioned why China is still not using western vaccines and instead relying on a policy of harsh lockdown.
Speaking at a regular press conference in Berlin on Monday, spokesman Stefan Hebestreit said Germany had taken note of the protests as well as “reports about partly violent actions”. [Chinese] security forces against the protesters.”
In the US, the Biden administration is reacting cautiously, reflecting a US desire to stabilize an important but increasingly adversarial relationship with Beijing.
There was no statement or tweet from President Joe Biden. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also refrained from comment.
Some mildly critical comments came from an unnamed spokesman for the National Security Council.
“As we have said, we think it will be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through its Zero COVID strategy,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
What are Xi’s options?
They are limited. In the fight to contain the coronavirus, strict lockdown measures have been Xi’s priority from the start. China opposes using Western mRNA vaccines – which have proven more effective in combating the latest variant of the coronavirus. For example, the number of cases in Beijing doubled over the weekend and continued to rise until Tuesday.
Still, the nationwide figures in recent days – more than 30,000 daily new cases – account for only a tiny minority of the country’s 1.4 billion population. Officially, just over 5,200 people have died from the virus since the pandemic began.
Abruptly lifting lockdown measures would likely lead to an increase in infections in a population that has not been well immunised. However, opting for Western vaccines would be a very public loss for the person in charge. That seems to be the most likely course of action in Beijing.