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What the anti-Covid lockdown protests in China are showing us

Xi Jinping's third term when he was said to be invincible and in absolute control already faces its biggest challenge within weeks as mass protests break out across China against fierce 'zero Covid' measures.

Two professors from Fudan University stand in front of the police to stop them from arresting the students protesting draconian anti-Covid lockdowns. (Photo courtesy Gabriel Ziukas)

Just months after the National Communist Party Congress put Xi Jinping at the helm of the Chinese political structure indefinitely, the leader is faced with a crisis at home. China is now grappling with a two pronged crisis which involves exponentially rising covid cases once again and public dissatisfaction with the ‘zero-covid’ policy of the administration.

The stringent measures include authorities welding doors shut so that people cannot come out in a policy that has been described as 'iron door'; but such a policy has been accused of causing havoc including the death of 10 people in the Urumqi region who could not escape their highrise during a fire because the escape routes were closed.

Reports have claimed that around 40,000 new cases were recorded on 27th November 2022, the highest numbers seen in months after the Chinese government asserted to have successfully controlled the spread of the virus. Now, the anger of the Chinese public is about much more than just about the rising covid cases. This sudden surge in the cases signifies the loopholes that exist in China’s “zero covid” policy that so vehemently puts stringent restrictions on the people. The policy is marked by many administrative decisions that has also slowed down emergency responses across the country, a factor at the very basis of the protests we are witnessing today.

It was a recurrence of similar incidents that pushed the people of China past the breaking point and ignited a wave of protests that is making the world remember the old Tiananmen Square uprising.

In a fire engulfing an apartment in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, around ten people lost their lives owing to the lack of immediate assistance. Videos circulating the internet after the incident showed protesters in the street shouting chants of “end the lockdown” and singing the lyrics of the national anthem which translates to “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves”. It has been reported that due to the strict and consistent lockdowns imposed as a part of the zero covid policy, many essential services are also halted across the country. There have been instances of deaths of little kids, as young as four months old, due to lack of immediate medical treatment. The treatment was delayed by around twelve hours due to the covid restrictions. People’s anger has been pouring out in continued protests across various parts of the country such as Beijing, Xinjiang, Guangzhou and are spreading towards Nanjing, Chengdu as well as Wuhan. At the centre of all of this unrest is the Chinese ‘zero covid’ policy and it ties with the very reign of Xi Jinping in the country.

What is the ‘zero covid’ policy?

This policy, advocated by the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping as a part of the strategy to contain the spread of different variants of the virus has been criticised significantly over the past as well. The policy is marked by strict restrictions and lockdowns any time there is a rise in cases. As a part of this strategy long drawn lockdowns and a halt in administrative as well as essential services have become common since the start of the pandemic. The people are made to go through forced quarantines and rapid regular testing along with the closing of shops and facilities in the areas that even report a few cases.

While initially this strategy served in favour of China as it was able to contain the spread at a rapid rate while the world was still grappling with the pandemic, it proved to be inefficient in the long run. The zero covid policy is based on the idea of a zero tolerance of the virus and has resulted in border restrictions, frequent RT PCR testing, lockdowns and this has fueled the anger of the people over time. This anger is now spilling over as a full blown dissent against Xi Jinping’s regime.

It would not be wrong to say that Xi Jinping has tied himself to the zero covid policy when he claimed in his address to the Communist Party Congress that the policy would remain intact. Over the past as well, he has instructed his subordinates to continue the implementation of restrictions in the face of severe criticism. Shanghai stands as an important example in this regard.

As the cases rise again, these draconian restrictions have once again come to the forefront. The continued implementation of the ‘zero Covid’ policy has fractured the administration to an extent that people are now ready to call for Xi Jinping to ‘step down’ from his chair.

A blank paper

The restrictions imposed in the zero Covid policy are a part of the larger structure of China that is known to suppress voices of opposition and dissent. These protests are largely the demonstrations of the people who are not just dissatisfied but also subjugated by their own government which gives them no space to express.

As the protests spread across the country, the people have resorted to symbolising their dissent through the use of a blank paper. Interestingly, this blank paper or ‘white paper’ was also a symbol of protests in Hong Kong during their agitation against the Chinese administration.

This blank sheet of paper was a brilliant response to the authorities that had banned any slogans or chants being written in the demonstration. Little did they know that even a blank paper can leave a substantial mark.

A challenge to the regime?

Protests ignited by popular dissatisfaction are fluid enough to acquire different characters over time. The demonstrations that started off by the deaths of the people engulfed in the building blaze in Xinjiang are now a test for the endurance of the regime of Xi Jinping. As the protesters, including students, across the country ask for Xi Jinping to “step down” from his position, the administration is responding through fierce measures.

The protests that started off as “anti lockdown” against the stringent zero covid policy are now being morphed into a challenge to the whole Chinese administration. The recent crackdown on journalists including a BBC journalist is an indication of how the regime aims to tackle this unrest.

It seems as though the Chinese regime would need to address the concerns of the protesters as the demonstrations have now started to have tangible impacts on the Chinese economy as well. The oil prices reduce significantly as the questions on crude oil demand loom large on the biggest crude oil importer, China. The uncertainty fueled by the protests has also impacted the volatile market as stock prices slide down along with the rising worries of the major investors in the Chinese market.

The zero covid policy was reiterated by Xi Jinping before consolidating absolute political power in his hands as the President of the People’s Republic of China for the third consecutive term. As these protests against the policy continue to grow and become a question on the authoritarian regime of Xi Jinping, it would be important to see how the leader chooses to tackle the challenge at home before claiming to make China a superpower globally.


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