The apparent failure by Beijing to determine new ways to handle the COVID-19 pandemic given what many consider the largest mass protests since the student movement of 1989 has exposed the limited abilities of the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership to handle unexpected events despite its extensive security and surveillance apparatus. CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, who gained near-total control of the party apparatus at the 20th Party Congress late last month, is nowhere to be seen after tens of thousands of students on at least 50 campuses in a dozen-odd cities staged protests against the three-year-long pandemic-related lockdowns on Sunday, November 27. Crowds on the streets of cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu and Urumqi also held impromptu demonstrations (Chinese New York Times, November 28; Deutsche Welle Chinese, November 28).
The protestors demanded not only an end to Xi’s signature “zero tolerance” COVID regime but also called for the introduction of universal values banned by the party, such as personal liberty, freedom of expression and the rule of law. Some demonstrators even shouted incendiary slogans such as “CCP, step down” (共产党下台, Gongchandang xiatai) and “Xi Jinping, step down” (习近平下台, Xi Jinping xiatai) (Liberty Times, November 28). Many held aloft pieces of white paper, which simultaneously symbolized press censorship in China and the fact that their protests had nothing to do with “color revolutions” supposedly spread by “hostile foreign forces” (Radio French International, November 27; Voice of America, November 27).
The acts of dissent that erupted spontaneously over the weekend in reaction to the horrendous fire that broke out in a high-rise apartment building last Thursday, November 24, in Urumqi, the heavily guarded capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where a seamless lockdown had been underway for over 100 days. Up to 40 Uighurs and Han Chinese reportedly died in a fire, which turned particularly serious because the building was allegedly sealed off due to lockdown measures. As a result, residents were trapped inside the building and could not escape. Due to pandemic-related barricades in nearby streets, fire engines reportedly took a long time to arrive at the scene. The official death toll was ten, but numerous social media posts claimed up to 40 casualties from the fire (HK01.com, November 27; Radio French International, November 26).
Earlier confrontations between locked-down residents and the police had taken place in Guangdong, Hubei, and Henan Provinces, including protests in Zhengzhou, Henan at the Taiwan-owned Foxconn Factory, which is the world’s largest assembler of iPhones (Deutche Welle Chinese, November 23; China News, November 23). The protesters, however, realized that while they had vented their long-suppressed views about the party-state’s handling of the pandemic, their crusade might not lead to major political changes. “We are still a long way from democracy,” the BBC quoted a Beijing demonstrator as saying in a video on the latest developments. “We do not have a program of action. But at least we have ensured that people in many places in China have come out to air their views” (BBC Chinese Video, November 28).
So far, neither General Secretary Xi nor any of the other six newly selected members of the Politburo Standing Committee have appeared in the media or addressed the public on the possibility of shifting away from strict mass lockdowns and adopting a more flexible epidemic prevention approach.
On November 11, the State Council announced a “20-point liberalization” package, limiting the extent and intensity of lockdowns, particularly in non-infected districts in urban areas. However, this dispensation was largely ignored by local officials who feared losing their jobs for being found insufficiently zealous in enforcing stringent zero-COVID measures (PRC National Health Commission (NHC), November 26; Gov.cn, November 12).
Xi and his advisors face an acute dilemma. While a continuation of the harsh, three-year-long zero-COVID regime would precipitate more protests, the number of daily new cases surged past 40,000 as of Sunday and any relaxation could further accelerate the spread of the virus (NHC, November 28). So far, the only Politburo member who has spoken out on the situation is Xinjiang Party Secretary Ma Xingrui, who has doubled down on the necessity of following Beijing’s instructions “with bigger work efforts and speedier action” (People’s Daily, November 26). The People’s Daily and other official media have given no hints of any potential changes to existing measures.
Sources known to China Brief said the party’s Central Military Commission had deployed more People’s Armed Police and soldiers to big cities as well as to Xinjiang and Tibet. However, police and military personnel have been ordered to act with restraint on a selective basis and to minimize the number of arrests of residents or students. On November 27, the Vice-Party Secretary of Tsinghua University Guo Yong met with the protestors and promised that nobody would be punished. Moreover, free railway tickets have been offered to students who want to return home early for the Lunar New Year holiday (Ming Pao, November 28).
Numerous doctors and medical professionals have suggested various methods the Chinese government could take to alleviate its current public health predicament. Many have laid the blame on China’s home-made Covid vaccine, which is deemed to be much less effective than mRNA shots developed in the U.S. and the U.K. Ironically, beginning last month, foreigners living in China have been given the choice of domestically manufactured or foreign-made vaccines (South China Morning Post [SCMP], November 4; BBC Chinese, July 13, 2021).
Moreover, authorities have been slow in publishing figures for COVID-stricken patients who have either died or gone to hospital intensive care units. Many netizens have blamed CCP leadership for being afraid that the low death figures resulting from the less potent Omicron variants would be used by “anti-government elements” to advocate the “do nothing” approach to the epidemic now adopted by most Western and Asian countries.
A conspiracy theory has also taken hold that local-level officials have been given instructions that fangcang (or “mobile cabin”) make-shift quarantine hospitals that various cities have built to isolate infected patients will remain in operation for up to five more years or longer, meaning that no end to Beijing’s harsh zero-COVID measures is imminent (Qz.com, May 11). One point of view even holds that maintaining the whole architecture of the zero-COVID apparatus, including vaccine manufacturing and frequent nucleic acid tests, has become a multi-billion-yuan business and that corrupt local cadres are primed to benefit financially from the continuation of the policy (New York Times Chinese, February 21).
At the same time, however, the Xi leadership, which is exceedingly nervous about GDP growth rates, must weigh the heavy economic toll that the lockdown policy has exacted on the economy. China’s economy officially expanded by a mere 3.9 percent in this year’s third quarter, while unofficial estimates put the figure as low as 2 percent to 3 percent (National Bureau of Statistics, October 24; Jingdaily, October 27).
At this stage, the Xi administration probably realizes that the longer the pandemic persists, it will continue to drag down consumer spending and disrupt logistical supply chains. As a result, multinational corporations will also increasingly hesitate to start or increase production in China or source from Chinese firms. Furthermore, the economy’s lackluster performance so far this year has proven that relying principally on injections of government stimulus through infrastructure spending is no longer a panacea for growth (SCMP, June 7).
Xi will probably not swallow his pride and make massive purchases of more effective U.S. or European-made vaccines. Yet, the claims of the CCP’s propaganda machinery that the China model is inherently much better than the Western model in solving public health problems have been exposed as an embarrassing overstretch. And although it is unlikely that the pandemic-related protests might last for more than a fortnight or so, the fact that so many citizens and students dared to risk being arrested by freely expressing their convictions could translate into pressure on the party to make changes not only in COVID-related measures but to other aspects of the system as well.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor in the History Department and Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of six books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in 2020.