Covid Protests in China – Reminiscent of Arab Springs

Anil Trigunayat

Protests and Zero Covid connection

China is witnessing an unprecedented outpour of anger against the Emperor and The Party

Presenting his eulogistic report card at the recently held  20th Communist Party Congress (CPC), President Xi Jinping claimed his ‘Zero Covid’ policy was a grand success as he was crowned for the 3rd time. But the same policy has come to bite him. An average Chinese citizen is usually prone to following the diktat of the supreme leader and the Party rather meekly, and unlike democracies, significant opposition is not overtly expressed.

Occasional small protests have been happening on many occasions on various issues that are allowed to be throttled out in a controlled manner but the Tiananmen square of 1989 and the democracy movement and year-long protests in Hong Kong and elsewhere remain etched as the red lines for the establishment. But extensive and draconian Covid lockdowns for prolonged periods in different parts of the country, pursuant to the ‘Zero Covid’ policy of the Government, have raised the levels of frustration and crossed their limits of tolerance.

 China has been accused of complicity in the origins and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across frontiers from the very beginning. It had claimed to have controlled within by enforcing lockdowns and zero movement policy with daily testing etc.  Initial success led them to make the people believe that the so-called ‘Chinese model’ was unique and superior and had worked well to contain the pandemic, as the West was not able to effectively deal with the virus.

But that was not so in reality as even now the pandemic and the threats continue to dog the ordinary citizen in China with similar prescriptions of ‘complete lockdown and containment’ while the rest of the world is learning to live with it.

The extent of vaccination and the very efficacy of the Chinese vaccines were also questioned. The elderly have not yet been vaccinated fully as per various reports.  Media clampdowns have kept the lid for far too long as externally China indulged in taking on the world through its ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ via a pliable WHO, leaving aside the economic crisis and supply and value chain disruptions that ensued due to complete lockdowns of Shanghai and other major economic and industrial hubs.

It was reported that iPhone may not be able to deliver large quantities due to disruptions. Zero Covid growth is unlikely to be positive. China’s economic stress and structural fault lines are causing distress at the grass-root level as they have created disruption in global value and supply chains let alone China’s GDP dipping below 3 percent. All these have compounded impact on the public mood and expectations and ability of the regime to deliver.

Normally, a spark for any major conflagration and public outcry is a small incident. The last three days have found one such anchor in the Urumqi apartment fire incident when 10 people, who could not escape due to locked premises, died. The suppressed anger and despair of the people acquired a voice and a salience as they confronted the police forces by shouting ‘Down with CPC and Down with Xi Jinping’ as they pressed for ending the lockdowns.

The situation is becoming a crisis to reckon with for the CPC and Xi Jinping even as they have decided to slightly ease the restrictions. It is unlikely that the totalitarian regime would retract from its ‘Zero Covid’ policy, at least formally, under pressure or protests lest it is seen as losing by the other side. This Xi can not afford just six weeks into his supposedly epoch-making third tenure. 

President Xi has a Hobson’s choice and that is to quell the riots and break the protests which possibly they will do since at the moment these are spontaneous and do not seem to have any acclaimed leadership but over time that is the way it will emerge. Hence during the early weeks a  carrot and stick policy which the Party and the Leader are likely to follow. The problem is also that China is reporting a strong incidence of new covid cases with over 40000 and mathematical models to suggest that if the lockdowns are lifted it could lead to unprecedented mayhem in Covid spread and casualties for which also the regime will be held responsible. 

At this stage, it does not appear that the situation is going out of hand since repression will be unleashed, through its extensive mass surveillance and digital tracking, on the errant by the regime but it may simultaneously try to find a way of alleviating the citizens’ distress and despair without giving in to their demands. Moreover, the economic fallout of the covid impact and extremist policies has already done a lot of harm to the Chinese economy and markets.

Hence, its capacity to withstand and endure continued pressure with clear political overtones is doubtful and demands a course correction for domestic and international well-being. Whether, these fast-spreading, although still spontaneous and sporadic, protests will ironically prove to be the sui generis ‘Arab Spring’ moment for China and President Xi Jinping, remains to be seen. 

This article was first published in CNBCTV18 as Covid Protests in China: Is This China’s Arab Spring Moment! on Dec 1, 2022.

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  • Anil Trigunayat

    Former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; Distinguished Fellow and Head of the West Asia Experts Group at the Vivekananda International Foundation.

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    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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