Much Cause But Little Recourse For Popular Discontent

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 22

Students at Xi'nan Jiaotong University Protest the Urumqi Fire on November 27, 2022. (Source: Wikipedia)

The last quarter of 2022 saw an outburst of Chinese people power. Citizens in as many as 28 cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing staged spontaneous protests on their campuses or out on the streets. The underlying cause was Beijing’s draconian lockdown measures, which led to unnecessary deaths, including a three year-old boy in Lanzhou who passed away after lockdown measures delayed his access to medical treatment following exposure to a gas leak (Channel News Asia, November 3, 2022). In late November, these protests escalated dramatically, with the proximate cause being the deaths of a few dozen residents in an apartment building in Urumqi: Those trapped could not flee the inferno because city operatives were enforcing strict anti-pandemic policies, blocking the building’s fire escapes (VOA, November 27). Yet the protests quickly shifted from anger against China’s “Zero Covid” policies to other grave errors of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Protestors held up sheets of A4 paper on which were written demands for government transparency and freedom of the media, among other issues. The movement came to be known as the “White Paper protests (白纸云动)” (Amnesty International, November 27; Human Rights Watch, November 19).

At the Party’s 20th National Congress in October 2022, Xi Jinping was declared its leader for life; and amendments of both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the CCP charters designated “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a new era” as the guiding light of the Party-state apparatus. Popular anger at Xi’s one-upmanship was demonstrated the same month when dissident Peng Lifa (彭立发) hoisted a big banner along a footbridge proclaiming “we want to eat, not take nucleic acid [tests]; we want dignity, not falsehoods; we want reforms, not the Cultural Revolution; we want ballots, not leaders” (BBC Chinese, November 28, 2022; VOA Chinese, October 19, 2022). Meanwhile, one female student at Tsinghua University was filmed crying out, “If we don’t dare to speak because we fear arrest, I feel that our people will be disappointed in us. As a Tsinghua student, I would regret that for the rest of my life!” and counterparts in Chengdu demanded an end to “one-man rule,” the return of popular elections, and freedom of expression. There were even isolated calls for “the end of the CCP” and for Xi Jinping to step down (Radio Free Asia, November 28, 2022; Youtube, November 27, 2022; China Digital Times, November 27, 2022). Police arrested dozens of participants in the protests, which seemed to have run out of steam by early this year. The protest movements have undergone a marked re-orientation after Beijing succumbed to popular sentiment and scrapped all pandemic-related restrictions early December 2022. However, while their ferocity may have diminished, one online media account that closely follows such activities believes that they have become much more frequent over the last year (Bumingbai, November 25).

Popular Discontent In The Last Year

The dire performance of the Chinese economy—despite the lifting of all anti-Covid-19 strictures—has spawned a wider-based series of demonstrations that highlight areas of economic decline and social malaise that affect the daily life of even usually apolitical citizens. Take, for example, the public outpouring of frustrations in a few dozen cities by those who have already paid huge deposits for homes that remain under construction (and likely will remain unfinished for another year or two). To add insult to injury, the hapless owners of these so-called rotten-tail apartments (烂尾楼)” are still obliged to pay banks hefty mortgages incurred when they first bought the properties.

According to statistics compiled by overseas financial and real-estate research institutions, there were 321 unfinished apartment buildings in 113 cities by the end of July 2022. Most of the dissatisfied homebuyers have taken some sort of action in protest against either the developers or the local governments. Some have stopped paying mortgages to the banks altogether (Radio Free Asia, July 29, 2022; VOA, July 19, 2022). Others have conducted mass protests focusing on banks—mostly the local-level branches of State-owned financial institutions—which do not seem to have enough funds to allow depositors to withdraw their cash. Bank runs, or depositors holding demonstrations outside insolvent ones, took place since this spring in the provinces of Liaoning, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Yunnan, and the cities of Tianjin, Lishui (Zhejiang Province), Changchun (Jilin), Cangzhou (Chongqing); Chengdu (Sichuan), and Raoping (Guangdong) (YouTube, October 28; Asia Times, October 14; October 13; First Financial Post, October 10, Foreign Policy, July 27, 2022). Several banks have run out of money due to their having made dubious loans to Evergrande and other irresponsible property developers.

The increasingly vehement—if still largely passive—revolt against Xi’s one-man rule testifies to the apparent failure of the “supreme leader” to solve the nation’s most severe and imminent problems. Xu Jiayin (许家印), the gung-ho CEO of Evergrande, declared in late 2021 that his empire had become insolvent and that he lacked the resources to complete the apartments already sold to customers. This was followed by similar statements made of other heavyweight developers. Yet it was not until October 2023 that the Xi team came out with some dubious solutions. It was announced that the state-owned banks would be allowed to lend needy developers up to 1 trillion Renminbi (RMB) in special loans, without necessary collateral. 50 designated property firms are expected to benefit from this largesse (Caixin, November 27; Global Times, November 17; SCMP, October 25).

Popular discontent towards the Xi regime was also demonstrated after the untimely death of former premier Li Keqiang at the relatively young age of 68. Even though the only mass gathering of mourners took place for just a few days at Li’s hometown of Hefei, Jiangsu, the large number of pro-Li—and pro-reform—postings on social media testified to people’s opposition to the supreme leader’s resuscitation of Mao Zedong-style dictatorship. Many of Li’s colorful quotations made it onto the internet before being scrubbed clean by the censors after just ten minutes or so. Examples of Li slogans that were cited include “to cut of bureaucratic red tape we must have the will [of a principled and brave person] who is willing to cut off his own right arm,” and an axiom that Li made while visiting Shenzhen—where chief architect of reform Deng Xiaoping’s created China’s first special economic zone—a few months before his demise: Li said that reform must go on “just as the waters of the Yellow River and the Yangzi River will not flow backwards” (Nikkei Asia, November 6; BBC Chinese, October 31; VOA Chinese October 27). That the outpouring of emotion for Li Keqiang was simultaneously a veiled protest against Xi Jinping also became clear with the sudden popularity of the song “It’s a pity it wasn’t you (可惜不是你)” (Youtube, April 1).

The Wealthy Flee, The State Pushes Back

Increasing numbers of Chinese who have apparently lost faith in their country have sought different ways to try to go abroad. However, this has become more difficult due to the fact both the central and local administrations have run out of both the Chinese RMB and US dollars (Reuters, September 14). The number of legal emigrants that the CCP has allowed out of the country has also dwindled. A few thousand would-be emigrants have become so desperate that they have tried to reach the United States through treacherous terrain in Central and South America (WSJ, April 16). It is estimated that 22,000 illegal immigrants from China tried to get into the United States in the first nine months of this year (Chosun Daily, Chinese Edition, November 28;, November 1; Radio Free Asia, March 17; VOA Chinese, April 8).

Equally crucial to whether the Xi administration can beat back the new challenges is the strength of its vaunted 24-hour, AI-assisted surveillance, and police-state apparatus. Owing to the fact that local-level administrations have piled up debt equal to an estimated 92 trillion RMB, a number of cities and counties have to cut the salaries of police and the Ministry of State Security personnel ((VOA, November 2; Radio Free Asia, November 6;, August 8). In response, security authorities in Beijing have asked financially sound state-owned enterprises to set up renwubu (人武部) or militia-like security departments, whose responsibilities include ensuring the security of the districts in which these SOEs are located (Xinhua, October 26; VOA Chinese, October 26). Xi and other top cadres have also repeatedly lauded the so-called “Fengqiao experience.” This is a reference to Mao Zedong’s high valuation of how, during the ideological campaigns launched in the 1950s and 1960s, citizens of Fengqiao, Zhejiang Province, voluntarily established quasi-police groups to ensure local law and order (, November 22; People’s Daily, September 27; China Brief, October 19, 2022).


The Xi administration seems to have run out of ideas for resuscitating citizens’ confidence and keeping the economy going while reducing debt. This is evident from the fact that the much-awaited Third Plenary Session of the 20th Central Committee has still not been called. Traditionally, the third plenary session of the Central Committee is held in October or November, and is devoted to theoretical and practical issues regarding pushing forward economic—and occasionally political—reform (Council on Foreign Relations, November 28; SCMP, November 12). That this crucial conclave looks to have been delayed until 2024 is yet another indication that short of Band-Aid-type measures such as earmarking 1 trillion RMB to “save” the property sector and inchoate steps to build “subsidized housing (保障房).” The supreme leader is reluctant about the revival of market-oriented steps that would attract foreign capital and give a shot in the arm to domestic enterprises. The majority of Chinese—including a large section of cadres—are convinced that only Deng Xiaoping-style reform, in the form of a retreat of state interference and fuller play given to private and foreign enterprises, can save China.