The extraordinary outbreak of unrest that spread through China at the weekend is of a kind that has not been seen for decades. Protests are not uncommon, given the limited means for people to express their views, but are usually local incidents based on specific grievances. While there have been larger individual protests in the recent past, these have rapidly sprung up across major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu, and now Hong Kong. They have taken place in prestigious universities too.
They challenge a zero-Covid policy that comes from the very top. And though many protesters are cautious or silent – holding up blank sheets of paper to express their dissent – some have called for human rights, press freedom and even the departure of Xi Jinping and the Communist party, only weeks after Mr Xi embarked upon a norm-breaking third term and thus indefinite leadership. Such calls were an incredible act of defiance given the country’s increasingly tight political control.
At first, China’s coronavirus strategy allowed most people to get on with life as usual, while other countries struggled with repeated lockdowns or high death tolls, or both. But it has long been clear that elimination is not feasible, and a policy now in its third year is causing increasing frustration and economic damage, leading to a growing number of local Covid-related protests.
Chinese audiences watching the World Cup noted unmasked crowds celebrating and realised that plenty of places – not just the reckless US – were living happily without such stringent controls. Then came reports that 10 people, including children, had been killed in a blaze while under lockdown in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Video showed a fire engine vainly trying to spray the building from a distance. Despite the tight security controls in Xinjiang, residents gathered to protest. Surprisingly, the unrest spread to Shanghai, and then onwards, with the case becoming emblematic of other deaths related to the policy and inhumane enforcement.
Officials initially took a relatively hands-off approach, with a few detentions rather than a sweeping crackdown. Extensive surveillance makes later retribution straightforward. But if increased censorship and police presence don’t see these protests off, worse may follow. The response in Xinjiang is likely to be harder than in prosperous Shanghai. Those calling for looser controls can expect more lenience than those shouting “Oppose dictatorship”. At the local level, especially, there may be piecemeal concessions. The party does not rely solely on repression and propaganda – as potent as they are – but also on recognising people’s needs and interests, and meeting some of them, even if belatedly and partially. Yet it has increasingly relied on toughness in recent years.
Many citizens still back zero-Covid measures, regarding them as necessary. The lacklustre vaccination campaign, and refusal to use more effective foreign vaccines, has left elderly people vulnerable. Infections are already rising steeply; further relaxation could see a wave of deaths. The best hope would probably be to declare zero Covid a life-saving triumph, which will allow the country to move to an intensive vaccination programme using imported doses and mitigation measures including masking, testing and isolation, while investing heavily in healthcare. But while authorities recently seemed to be trying to ease some aspects of the zero-Covid policy, shortening quarantine and telling local officials not to “over-enforce” policies, that could, if anything, be put in reverse by these protests. Beijing will not want to appear to bow to pressure.
Whatever the solution, China’s people should be free to discuss the decisions being made and the leaders who impose them, and to protest against them. The party does not recognise those rights, of course. But these events should remind it that relying on repression has its limits.