Among the Communist rhetoric cleverly repurposed by China’s anti-zero-Covid protesters is a phrase that Mao Zedong employed: a single spark can start a prairie fire. When a political system is so rigid, observers can easily fall prey to one of two conflicting tendencies. The first is to seize upon any significant unrest as the first crack in the edifice, which could bring the whole system down – as when the death of Mohamed Bouazizi precipitated the Arab spring. Since such collapses are usually astonishing at the time, even if explicable in retrospect, the temptation to suggest that they really could be coming this time can be hard to resist.
The other tendency is to look at the unlikely triumph of the Communist party and conclude that any dissent is not only doomed but futile. The party has spent years studying the demise of the Soviet Union to ensure that it does not suffer the same fate. It ruthlessly crushed the student-led protests of 1989, in which millions, not merely hundreds, took to the streets. It learned from that experience too, refining other means of repression. It is a sign of how limited the political space has become that these protests, attacking a policy attached to Xi Jinping by name, and in a few cases even calling for his departure, seem so utterly astonishing. Unlike in 1989, there are no signs of fissures at the top, domestic security spending dwarfs even China’s hefty military budget, and technological advances have made surveillance even more extensive.
Though heavy policing and censorship may have seen off unrest for now, the news that the former leader Jiang Zemin has died may complicate matters. The passing of leaders has often triggered movements, and it is harder for the party to shut down mourning for a senior leader than a demonstration: in 1989, Hu Yaobang’s death precipitated the pro-reform protests that began in Tiananmen Square. Mr Jiang did not enjoy the same popular sympathy; among other things, he was instrumental in the 1989 crackdown. But commemoration can be used as a rebuke to current authorities and for some, at least, he appears to stand for a time of collective leadership rather than strongman rule, when China was enjoying rapid economic growth and opening up to the world, in stark contrast to the picture under Mr Xi.
A binary reading of the possibilities of these protests – victorious, or stamped out and thus pointless – cannot capture their importance. There is no reason to believe that the cynical take on these events, as not only fleeting but essentially meaningless, is more accurate than a naive belief that they will ultimately lead to a scrapping of the zero-Covid strategy, or even a free and democratic China. Neither view captures the complexity of social movements.
Whether the protests reignite in the coming days or months, and whether they have an obvious and immediate impact on the party and its policies, are not the only measures of their importance. They have borrowed tactics from Hong Kong’s suppressed uprising (the blank sheets of paper) and slogans have evoked October’s one-man protest against Mr Xi at Sitong Bridge in Beijing, which at the time seemed utterly quixotic. In the long term, they may help to open up an alternative vision of China for young people especially, and create a sense of the possibilities for social action in the future. Sparks do not always start a conflagration: they may, however, kindle a flame that is not easily extinguished.