Massive public protests against the ‘Zero-Covid Policy’ are a common sight across all major Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan. These protests make it amply clear that China deliberately tried to cover up its failure in handling the global health crisis in recent decades. Even though these public protests seem to be against the Covid mismanagement, they also challenge the absolute and unchallenged power assumed by the Chinese Communist Party over the country. This internal resentment will be the biggest challenge for President Xi Jinping.
1. What did the Chinese leadership wish to portray ?
Things are certainly not hunky-dory in Communist China. Moreover, the reality is starkly different from what President Xi wanted the world to believe. When President Xi took the reins, he wanted the world to believe that the 21st Century belonged to Asia, and China would be the centre of global geopolitics and the world economy. In addition, he also thought that the US and European countries had lost their political and financial mojo. This future Chinese dominance was the premise behind all key policies and strategies employed by Xi, who was recently elected as the President for the third time.
In his latest coronation ceremony, President Xi shared his vision – ‘China will overtake the US and become a global superpower by 2050’. He also mentioned that he saw no roadblocks and no one could prevent China from realising its destiny and its rightful place in the world order.
The recent events have made this ambition a little difficult to realise. These public protests are historic, as we have not seen such a public display of resentment against Chinese rule in the past few decades.
2. What is happening in China ?
Thousands of residents across the major cities – Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan – have taken to the streets against the Communist rule. These demonstrations are against the ‘Zero-Covid Policy’ employed by the Chinese leadership that resulted in stringent restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The ordinary residents got frustrated over these unabated restrictions and finally took to the streets to vent their anger. The timing of these demonstrations could not have been worse as it coincided with the massive surge in Covid infections. Today, the daily count of new cases stands at 40,000. This chain of events may prove to be a deadly trap for China. The irony is that the country which introduced this lethal virus in early 2020 finds it difficult to contain it when the rest of the world seems to have conquered the menace of Covid-19 to a large extent. It makes the Chinese leadership nervous and restless.
The recent protests have revealed the truth about the facade of tall claims such as – ‘We have completely conquered the Covid-19 health crisis’, ‘There is absolutely nothing to fear’, ‘There is no impact on our production capacity and the growth rate of our economy’, ‘We have emerged a stronger economy after the pandemic, etc.’. In reality, the situation is grimmer since the new cases are on the rise, and people are even more frustrated over the unabated restrictions. There is civil unrest in China. The Chinese leadership has tried using force to suppress the dissent in which some have already lost their lives. These anti-Communist rule protests have reached Beijing (the political capital) from Shanghai (the financial capital). People in Wuhan, a Chinese industrial town from where the virus originated, have joined these protests.
3. President Xi’s dictatorship gets challenged
We should note one distinct feature in all these demonstrations that challenges Xi’s authority. The placards read – ‘Freedom and Human Rights !’, ‘Stop Government-sponsored repression !’, ‘Say NO to ‘Zero-Covid Policy !’, ‘Goodbye Xi Jinping !’ These demonstrations seem to be against the ‘Zero-Covid Policy’ and associated restrictions; they have effectively challenged the Communist dictatorship and President Xi’s One-man rule. We must realise that these are telltale signs of some major reforms being implemented. These would be the nemesis of the current unjust and authoritative rule.
If we notice carefully, there was some internal resistance to Xi’s third term. The Chinese also opposed such a selfish decision, and this was evident from placards – ‘Goodbye Xi Jinping’ or ‘<———EXIT’. These anti-Xi demonstrations mainly focussed on ‘Freedom and Human Rights’. However, Xi suppressed these protests with brute force. It was similar to how the old Communist leadership dealt with any dissent in the past.
4. The large-scale public protests against President Xi’s unrestrained dictatorship
Such large-scale public protests have taken place for the first time in decades. In 1989, Chinese students led the historic protests against the then-Communist leadership and their policies. However, the Communist leadership used brute force to crush dissent. The Chinese Army arrested a few while it killed many protestors at Tiananmen Square with assault rifles and tanks. The Chinese Army killed around 3,000 innocent protestors, and the then-Communist leadership eventually succeeded in containing and managing public resentment.
Many scholars believe that the root cause of the current widespread demonstrations against the ‘Zero-Covid policy’ is the unrestrained power assumed by one individual – Xi Jinping. It is where the 1989 protests differ from the current ones. The protests in 1989 were largely limited to one Chinese city – Beijing, the political capital of China. No particular individual led these protests since students and residents spontaneously took to the streets. The unavailability of free internet and social media contained the protests in one region.
However, today, things are different. The current demonstrations have already reached all major Chinese cities, and thanks to social media, many people are well abreast of all key developments. These protests may not be limited to Mainland China but will soon spread to Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong. President Xi-led Communist Government might have sensed the brewing resentment and has quickly imposed a complete lockdown in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Lhasa has been in complete lockdown for the last three months. As a result, the residents of the Tibetan capital are furious over such impulsive policies of the repressive Government in Mainland China. It will add to the issues President Xi may have to deal with in the coming months.
5. Large-scale public protests pose a potent threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China
A careful examination of the public demands during these demonstrations will reveal another aspect. The Communist Government has been torturing Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang region for years. It has also brutally crushed any opposition to it.
The Chinese have shown their solidarity and sympathised with the victims in the Xinjiang region. They were seen raising slogans supporting the Uyghur Muslims during these demonstrations. This is dangerous for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. President Xi must have realised this imminent danger. Hence, he has been trying his best to suppress these protests once and for all.
The different aspects of these protests suggest that Xi will find it hard to manage economic growth while dealing with Covid and managing public resentment. He will have to face stiff internal opposition in the times to come. The Communist leadership will have to face an even larger challenge – the Chinese are frustrated with the One-party unrestrained rule over their lives.
6. The relentless increase in daily cases is an indication that Chinese vaccines have proved to be less effective
The other aspect of these protests is the management of Covid. These large-scale protests have made it amply clear to the world that the Communist Government had utterly mismanaged the health crisis. The same Government had earlier made lofty claims to have effectively conquered the pandemic. In reality, the virus has dealt a deadly blow to the Chinese economy.
The Communist Government had developed three vaccines to contain the spread of the deadly virus. Among the 3, Sinovac was considered to be more effective. China has exported this homemade vaccine to many other countries. The Communist Government claims to have vaccinated 80-90% of its adult population. However, the recent surge in daily infections has raised serious concerns about the efficacy of the Chinese vaccines. The Government had earlier claimed that the homemade vaccines were 60 – 70% effective against the deadly virus; however, it is clear that they are 30% effective at best.
It is important to note that the efficacy of the vaccine developed by Pfizer, an American pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporation, was 80%, and for ‘Covishield’ and ‘Covaxin’, the vaccines developed by India, it was more than 80%. These indigenous vaccines helped India achieve the milestone of 1 billion vaccinations. Thanks to their effectiveness, India seems to have conquered the health crisis to a great extent.
However, the situation in China is the opposite. The Chinese vaccines have utterly failed to deliver on their promise, and consequently, the Chinese population has suffered greatly, socially as well as economically. The situation is no different in countries which imported these vaccines from China.
7. The US may try to exploit this situation to its advantage
The conflict between the US and China over the sovereignty of Taiwan is far from resolved. Hence, the US may take advantage of this situation. The US has declared its full support to Taiwan as well as Hong Kong. The American media has always tried to plant the seeds of Democracy in Mainland China and in the autonomous regions such as Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan. Hence, the US will not miss this opportunity to weaken the Communist Party’s grip over China.
8. One tight slap : The reality is in stark contrast with what the Chinese Communist Party has tried to portray about India
The Global Times, the newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, did not miss a single opportunity to make fun of India and its pandemic management during the first wave of the mass infections. It questioned the efficacy of the Indian vaccines. It also spread rumours that due to a lack of adequate healthcare infrastructure, the actual number of deaths, was far more than the official numbers released by the Indian Government.
However, instead of falling prey to such rumours and accusations, India focussed on healthcare management, administered more than a billion shots to its adult population and passed this healthcare test with flying colours. India has set an example for the world to follow.
India has once again proved that action speaks louder than words, and it is a tight slap to China and its proxy – The Global Times.
9. India’s meteoric rise compels China to some deep introspection and soul searching
Today, the Corona virus threatens to boomerang against China. 2020 has proved to be a year of political transformation, and there is a paradigm shift in treating India as a partner and a guide.
The civil unrest in China has grown further after the Corona pandemic in the years 2020-2021 and the Russia-Ukraine War in 2022. India has dealt with these challenges patiently and walked a tightrope to minimise the impact of Corona virus as well as the war on its healthcare system and economy.
India is out of the Corona virus woods, and the economic growth rate has again touched 7%. India’s economy has proved to be more resilient when compared to developing as well as developed economies. India has recently surpassed the UK and has emerged as the 5th largest economy. It will soon overtake Japan and Germany and clinch the 3rd spot. These developments certainly compel China to deep introspection and soul searching.
– Dr Shailendra K Deolankar (Foreign Policy and International Affairs Expert. Ref.: Facebook, December 2022)
Public protests are historic, as we have not seen such resentment against Chinese rule in the past few decades !