Food stalls in Schenzen. Food stalls in Schenzen. Source: QuantFoto - Flickr / Shared as orginal on black background / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / license linked below

Workers’ protests in China have ballooned into potentially serious, nationwide political demonstrations, argues Terina Hine

The recent protests in China reveal more than just anger at severe Covid restrictions. The spark, a fire in a high-rise building in Ürümqi resulting in the death of ten people, has ignited a political flame, the like of which has not been seen for decades.

Demonstrations broke out across the country, in multiple cities and on numerous university campuses, initiated by pent-up frustration from three years of Covid restrictions. The brutally enforced city-wide lockdowns, endless daily testing, invasive digital passes and vast quarantine camps, meant the entire country could empathise with those who died, trapped in a burning building with rescue teams unable to gain access supposedly because of Covid controls.

This outpouring of anger and grief quickly developed a more overtly political nature, resonating far beyond immediate concerns. In some instances, the anger became directed at the CCP and President Xi, with calls for political reform and an end to party rule. In Shanghai activists even chanted ‘down with Xi Jinping’. 

Chinese media has blamed the West and ‘hostile forces’ for fanning the flames, and others accuse Western governments of seizing on opposition to lockdowns rather than focusing on the success of China’s zero-Covid policy. Of course, it is true that China hawks ramp up anti-China rhetoric at every opportunity, and our media rarely mentions how China’s Covid death toll contrasts sharply with that of the US and UK (China’s Covid death toll equates to three deaths per million, compared to 3,000 per million in the US and 2,400 per million in the UK). But none of this alters the fact that the protests are extensive, exceptional and represent an unprecedented, direct challenge to the CCP and President Xi Jinping. 

From Jiang to Xi

The death of former president Jiang Zemin announced on Wednesday, may add further fuel to the fire and could hardly come at a worse time for President Xi. Jiang swept to power after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and as China has become increasingly repressive under President Xi, Jiang has become associated with a period of greater openness and reform. Although responsible for a number of human rights abuses, at age 78, Jiang relinquished all his formal titles and oversaw the peaceful transition of power. The contrast with Xi, who in October secured a historic third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is not lost on those calling for reform. 

There is a risk Jiang could become a symbol of opposition. Already the displaying of toad imagery (depicting the former president as a toad due to his supposed amphibian features) has become an act of dissent, with so-called ‘toad worshippers’ displaying resistance through toad imagery and memes.

At the twentieth Party Congress in October, President Xi cemented his grip on power. After years of power-sharing among the elites, control of the party has been increasingly centralised under Xi and is now decisively dominated by just one man; President Xi has become China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. With no obvious successor in the wings, many believe Xi will become ruler for life.

Concern over increasing centralisation along with ever-intrusive state censorship has clearly been exacerbated by the government’s Covid response. The significant economic slowdown may also be attributed to China’s zero-Covid policy, as whole cities were, and continue to be, shut down in order to control the virus. 

Until recently, economic growth in China was exceptional, and even since the pandemic, China’s GDP outperforms most developed economies. But this growth masks some serious problems: youth unemployment is on the rise, currently standing at 20%, and huge disparities in wealth are becoming increasingly apparent.

The spread of workers’ protests

For many the cost of this growth has been high, sustained through the exploitation of cheap labour, with millions working long hours for low wages, under restrictive and often unsafe conditions. With no independent trade unions and limited workers’ rights, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of wildcat strikes take place annually across China, as workers protest against their conditions.

Mass incidents, the government’s euphemism for any form of protest, increased dramatically during the period of intense economic growth, most notably in the construction industry. According to the Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin, in November alone (prior to the latest Covid demonstrations) there were 352 workers’ protests across the country. The Foxconn (Apple supplier) dispute, in which thousands of employees walked out over unsafe conditions following a Covid outbreak, was far from an isolated incident.

But almost without exception, these incidents are localised protests, concerned with local issues confined to one sector, with protesters frequently espousing loyalty to the CCP and its leadership. Rarely do they reverberate beyond the immediate community. This time it was different.

From Ürümqi in the northwest to Shanghai in the east, protests spread across the country, with the protesters themselves drawn from a broad demographic, including factory workers, urban elites, students and the unemployed. The protests were clearly on a national scale and concerned with a national issue, a central CCP policy, heralded by President Xi himself. Not all were overtly political, but there is little doubt that they were a direct rebuke to President Xi’s signature campaign against Covid and this alone is significant.

Moreover, many protests went beyond the single issue of zero-Covid. Activists held blank pieces of paper indicating their opposition to growing censorship, raising concerns that technology developed to track people’s movements for Covid control may be used for other more nefarious purposes. In the city of Chengdu, demonstrators chanted: “We don’t want a leader for life political system. We don’t want an emperor.” In Beijing and Shanghai, there were calls for the downfall of President Xi.

Unsurprisingly the authorities have cracked down. There have been numerous arrests, with reports of excessive police violence and key protesters disappearing. Activists have been targeted and their phone data examined. To quell student protests, universities have been urged to close campuses and send students home. The government is clearly concerned. 

What happens next?

At the recent CCP congress, President Xi took credit for the zero-Covid policy and announced it was one China must ‘stick to without wavering’. While other countries put profit above people, President Xi ‘put people and their lives first … With solidarity and resilience’. But mistakes have been made. After three years, while the rest of the world has been able to move on, China remains trapped. Trapped because the vaccination programme focussed on the young rather than the old and vulnerable, and trapped because President Xi has been wedded to a policy of vaccine nationalism.

There are signs the government is listening and beginning to relax some of the most severe lockdown rules. Currently, there are 49 cities in partial or total lockdown, representing two-fifths of the country’s economic output and a third of the population. The incentives to move on are many, but relaxing Covid restrictions too far, too fast could be dangerous. 

While other zero-Covid countries, such as New Zealand and South Korea adopted a vaccination approach to lifting restrictions, China remained stuck to its elimination policy. This is now beginning to change with a renewed vaccination programme, but it is not an instant fix. Initially, China’s vaccination policy prohibited those over sixty being jabbed, vaccinating only the working-age population. The legacy of this policy lingers. Official statistics reveal that only 40% of those over eighty, and only a third of those over sixty, are fully vaccinated, and millions remain unvaccinated.

Plus, the homegrown, non-mRNA vaccine has proved to be less effective than foreign alternatives, as protection diminishes rapidly, becoming negligible within six months. Yet in thrall to aggressive nationalism, President Xi has refused to allow the use of foreign vaccines.

With the more infectious Omicron variant dominant, outbreaks are proving harder to control, and the country is recording record numbers of cases. If President Xi relaxes his Covid restrictions too fast, he risks an exit wave that could prove fatal for hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million, this winter. A recent study by Chinese and American scientists, reported in the journal Nature, suggested an uncontrolled Omicron outbreak in China would overwhelm hospitals by more than fifteen times, and result in 1.6 million deaths.

The agreement by officials to ‘fine tune and modify’ some of the more draconian zero-Covid regulations are a clear sign that protesters are being heard. The severe and rapid clampdown on those who used the moment to protest against President Xi and the CCP show there is zero chance the government will relinquish control over other areas quite as readily. Whether the fire lit in this past week has been extinguished remains to be seen.

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