The 20th Party Congress consolidated Xi Jinping’s absolute power in the Communist Party of China (CCP) but soon after a series of protests erupted in many parts of China against the Zero-COVID-19 policy. Some experts are calling it ‘Tiananmen 2.0’, while others see this as a challenge to Xi Jinping’s authority. However, what needs to be probed is whether these protests are coordinated or outbursts against the lockdowns in China. What will be the CCP’s response in case these protests become more widespread and violent? Will Xi Jinping end the Zero-COVID-19 policy which he glorified in his 20th Party Congress address?
Weibo, Chinese social media and social media handles are not allowed to operate in China. There have been videos of protests right in the heart of the CCP. A video from Beijing on November 27 at Tiananmen Square showed people chanting, “We want universal values”, “We want freedom, equality, democracy, rule of law”, “We do not want dictatorship” and “We do not want personality cult”.
The last two take direct digs at President Xi but this is not the first time he has been criticised directly for his COVID-19 policy. In 2020, Zhao Shilin, a retired Professor at China’s Minzu University, Deputy Director of the Culture and Arts Commission and former member of the CCP posted two open letters to President Xi Jinping. Guo Yuhua, a prominent Professor in the Sociology Department of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, indirectly criticised Xi Jinping, and the Chinese leadership in her interview with Radio Free Asia 3, published on March 3, 2020. Reputed Tsinghua University Professor Xu Zhangrun authored a 6,246-word essay on February 5, captioned ‘Angry People No Longer Fear’, which went viral on China’s social media.
Forty-six-year-old Xu Zhiyong, a former lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, posted an article on February 3, urging Xi Jinping to step down for his “inability to handle major crises”.
However, the current wave of protests started after a deadly fire broke out in Urumqi due to COVID-19 restrictions and the actual number of deaths has been concealed. The protests did not limit themselves to Urumqi though and spread to Beijing, Shanghai, and Zhengzhou including almost fifty-one universities where there were demonstrations. Chinese social media site Xiao Hong Shu was full of calls for Banana Peel (Xi Jinping) to step down. In Urumqi, interestingly it was the Hans who led the protests rather than the Uyghurs as many later said that as they are the majority, they can protest.
The authorities tried to unleash a crackdown on the protestors by randomly stopping people and checking if their phones had telegrams, Twitter, or any other social media applications. a few protesters in Guangzhou say the day after the protests they were stopped by police and left their ID numbers with them, there were illegal attempts to log into their telegram accounts even though their phones were with them when the attempts happened. Other protesters in Beijing told them that they only stayed at the protest site for a bit and were not confronted by the police on the day of the protest. However, they received calls from the police the next day, summoning them to the police station for questioning. They were summoned to the police station with the friends that they went to the protest together the day before, which made them wonder how the police knew they were together at the same place in the evening.
Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, where clashes between angry residents and authorities happened earlier this month, saw another night of fierce clashes between the two sides. People were throwing glass bottles at police as they demanded an end to the lockdown.
On November 29, China’s National Health Commission delivered the first vague government acknowledgement of the Covid protests. However, it said that the Omicron symptoms are milder than in previous variants. The Chinese authorities are not using prominent government platforms like People’s Daily or Xinhua but using Weixin and Gauncha to spread rumours about that COVID-19 is not life-threatening anymore. Two stories are being circulated which downplayed the dangers of the pandemic. One is by Global Times, titled “Chinese scientists have confirmed! Omicron’s pathogenicity is now substantially lower”. Omicron’s ability to replicate itself in human cells is less than 1/10 of the original variation. The researcher concludes, “The finding tells us that we should not panic over Omicron. For the vaccinated general public, Covid virus is significantly less dangerous than before.”
The other story is by Guancha, titled “Are their aftereffects of Covid? Professor: No evidence”. The story quoted a Zhongshan University expert saying that despite some researchers using “long Covid” to describe long-term symptoms after recovering from Covid–19, they should not be considered aftereffects. The experts said the scientific community has not determined that pandemic has aftereffects, or at least there is no sufficient evidence.
On November 30, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan of the State Council held a symposium at the National Health Commission to listen to the opinions and suggestions of relevant experts on optimising and improving prevention and control measures. She also echoed the same that the virus pathogenicity is weakening along with praising Xi Jinping for controlling the virus and putting people’s lives ahead of anything else. Conversely, today’s announcement of lifting all lockdowns from Guangzhou and that Beijing has been gradually lifting lockdowns over the past few days.
Even though authorities have tried to downplay the virus but few relaxations, especially in Beijing and Shanghai do show that these protests had an impact on the party. Yet, this does not mean the end of the Zero-COVID-19 policy which has been personally led by Xi Jinping. It also does not mean that the protests were able to bring a change in the party’s approach, it seems this is just a tactic to stall, and Xi Jinping will act swiftly and brutally. Already the protestors at many places have been identified and with China’s social credit system they will get a reward sooner or later. If Xi Jinping does away with the policy entirely because of the protests, it will make him a paper tiger which will dent his personality built over the years.