How Xi Jinping could respond to the biggest wave of protests since 1989
“You’re paid, and we’re not!” he yelled at police on Sunday. “Lift the ban! No more restrictions!”
The contrast between China’s COVID-zero policy and the rest of the world’s ability to move on from the pandemic has become so sensitive that its censors have been cutting away from live shots of maskless crowds at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Citizens had hoped that Xi’s crowning for a third term at the National Party Congress in October would end the groundhog days of COVID of the past three years. Now they vent their frustration at local officials who have either been too scared or too ambitious to implement Beijing’s “20 points” – modest changes designed to ease the burden of COVID isolation.
“You all know about the party congress that just happened, right?,” a middle-aged woman in a pink hoodie screamed at officials in Shanxi on Sunday. “You know the 20 new measures?”
In Beijing’s universities – dismissed in the Xi era as sponges of Chinese Communist Party propaganda – students have found their voice despite the system regularly disappearing people for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
“My name is Yang Tzu-Chiang, I’m in charge of the students’ association,” Yang yelled into a megaphone at Renmin University, the first Chinese institution to establish a dedicated research centre to Xi Jinping Thought.
“Yang Tzu-Chiang, that is my name,” he said again for emphasis, aware that identifying himself is a singular act of defiance just like holding up a blank piece of paper can put you in jail.
Nearby at Tsinghua University, the Chinese president’s alma mater, a young protester told her fellow students “don’t be scared”.
“If we don’t use our voice out of fear of being caught, I think all Chinese people would be disappointed. As a Tsinghua University student, I would also regret it for the rest of my life.”
In central Beijing on Sunday night, a man surrounded by smartphones and police yelled Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 – a love poem about youth turned into an allegory for the Chinese Communist Party
“Every fair from fair sometime declines,” he said.
A sign posted in Harbin, northern China, tell students not to “go gentle into that good night” and lists the COVID-impacted fire tragedy in Urumqi that sparked the latest round of protests; the Guizhou bus crash that killed 27 on their way to quarantine; and suicides at Zhengzhou’s locked-down Foxconn facility, one of the world’s largest iPhone factories.
Behind it, an electronic sign flashed: “we’re in the northernmost part [of China], but our heart belongs to the Party”.
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the protests were unique because unlike other civil unrest over mining, collapses in the property market or baby milk formula, the disputes had gone beyond localised self-interest and united the grievances of geographically and economically disparate people.
“Now you look at it, it is different because they also have social values. There are people saying ‘down with Xi Jinping’ or ‘down with the CCP’,” he said. “They are angry about the system.”
“They are unhappy about the party state. This is something very, very different.”
Wu said the student protests were the largest he had seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and had challenged the misperception that young Chinese generations were not interested in human rights, freedom of speech or democratic politics.
“In general, people think young Chinese students are having a propaganda education, so they are very patriotic. I don’t think people anticipated this group of people would go against the government and also bravely talk about public policy. It is really a big surprise”.
Wu said there were three options for how Xi and the party could respond.
The first is that the government, unable to see its own shortcomings, blames the United States and the West for stirring dissent and doubles down on its COVID-zero policy.
The second is the middle ground.
“Hopefully, not that many people are arrested, the government notices the unhappiness and anger at the ground level, and they know it is something to work on,” said Wu.
The third is less palatable. If the protests go on in the next week, Wu would not rule out the party resorting to military intervention.
“The party is formidable and also determined to crack down on these sorts of protests,” he said. “I just worry that if there is a bigger clash, it will be a much bigger disaster. They could use the armed forces.”