Barely a month after granting himself new powers as China’s potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger of the kind not seen for decades, sparked by his draconian “zero COVID” program that will soon enter its fourth year.
Demonstrators poured into the streets over the weekend in numerous cities including Shanghai and Beijing, chanting slogans and confronting police. A number of university campuses also experienced protests.
Such widespread demonstrations are unprecedented since the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that was crushed with deadly force by the army.
Most people in the weekend protests focused their anger on rigid pandemic lockdowns, a form of virtual house arrest that can last for months and has been criticized as neither scientific nor effective.
But some also shouted for the downfall of Xi and of the Communist Party that has ruled China with an iron fist for 73 years, criticism that is deemed seditious and punishable by years in prison. Protesters expressed frustration over a system that is neither performing as promised or responding to their concerns.
So far, the response from the authorities has been muted. Some police in Shanghai used pepper spray to drive away demonstrators, and some protesters were detained and driven away in a bus. However, China's vast internal security apparatus is famed for identifying people it considers troublemakers and carting them off from their homes when few are watching.
Police in Shanghai also beat, kicked and handcuffed a BBC journalist who was filming the protests. Authorities said they arrested him for his own good “in case he caught COVID from the crowd," the BBC said in a statement.
“We do not consider this a credible explanation," it said.
The possibility of further protests is unclear, and government censors have been scrubbing the internet of videos and messages supporting the demonstrations.
The central government, meanwhile, reiterated its stance that anti-coronavirus measures should be “targeted and precise" and cause the least possible disruption to people's lives.
That doesn't appear, however, to be reflected at the local level. Cadres are threatened with losing their jobs or suffering other punishments if outbreaks occur in their jurisdictions, prompting them to adopt the most radical options.
Xi's unelected government doesn't seem to be overly concerned with the hardships brought by the policy. This spring, millions of Shanghai residents were placed under a strict lockdown that resulted in food shortages, restricted access to medical care, and harsh economic pain. Nevertheless, in October, the city's most powerful official, a longtime Xi loyalist, was appointed to the Communist Party's No. 2 position.
The party has long imposed oppressive surveillance and travel restrictions on those least able to oppose them, particularly Tibetans and members of Muslim minority groups such as Uyghurs, more than 1 million of whom have been detained in camps where they are forced to renounce their traditional culture and religion and swear fealty to Xi.
But this weekend's protests included many members of the educated urban middle class from the majority Han ethnic group.
That's exactly the demographic the party relies on to sustain an unwritten post-1989 agreement in which the public accepted autocratic rule and a lack of civil liberties in exchange for improvements in quality of life.
But now the party's implementation of its “zero COVID" policy shows it is reinforcing its control at the expense of the economy, meaning that the old arrangement has ended, said Hung Ho-fung of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“The whole situation is reflecting that the party and the people are trying to seek a new equilibrium, and there will be some instability in the process,” he said.
To develop into something on the scale of the 1989 protests would require clear divisions within the leadership that could be leveraged for change, Hung said. Xi all but eliminated such threats at an October party congress, when he gave himself a new term and packed the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee with loyalists, sending two potential rivals into retirement.
“Without the clear signal of party leader divisions ... I would expect this kind of protest might not last very long,” Hung said.
It's “unimaginable” that Xi would back down, and the party is experienced in handling protests, Hung said.
With its “zero COVID” policy, imposed shortly after the coronavirus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, China is now the only major country still trying to stop all transmission of the virus rather than learning to live with it.
That has kept China’s infection numbers lower than those the United States and other major countries, but public acceptance of the restrictions has worn thin. People who are quarantined at home in some areas say they lack food and medicine. The ruling party faced public anger following the deaths of two children whose parents said anti-virus controls hampered their efforts to get medical help.
And the case numbers continue to rise, jumping in the past week from less than 30,000 per day to 40,273 on Monday. While China initially had a strong vaccination program, that has lost momentum since the summer.
The current protests erupted after a fire on Thursday killed at least 10 people in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi in the northwest, where some residents have been locked in their homes for four months. That prompted an outpouring of angry questions online about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other pandemic restrictions.
China has persevered with the policy despite criticism from the normally supportive head of the World Health Organization, who called it unsustainable. Beijing dismissed his remarks as irresponsible.
And on Sunday, White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said measures such as shutdowns are only intended to be temporary.
“It seems that in China it was just a very, very strict extraordinary lockdown, where you lock people in the house, but without any seemingly end game to it,” Fauci said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Yet Xi, an ardent nationalist, has politicized the issue to the point that exiting the “zero COVID” policy could be seen as a loss to his reputation and authority.
“Zero COVID” was “supposed to demonstrate the superiority of the ‘Chinese model,' but ended up demonstrating the risk that when authoritarian regimes make mistakes, those mistakes can be colossal," said Andrew Nathan, a Chinese politics specialist at Columbia University who edited The Tiananmen Papers, an insider account of the government's response to the 1989 protests.
“But I think the regime has backed itself into a corner and has no way to yield. It has lots of force, and if necessary, it will use it," Nathan said.
“If it could hold onto power in the face of the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, it can do so again now."