The rare street protests that erupted in cities across China are a referendum against President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy and the strongest public opposition during his political career, Chinese analysts said.
Since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, so many Chinese have not risked arrest and other consequences to take to the streets over a single cause.
“During Xi Jinping’s 10 years in power, these are the most public and widespread expressions of citizens’ anger against government policies,” said Bates Gill, a China expert with the Asia Society.
Public dissatisfaction with Xi’s zero-Covid policy, expressed on social media or offline in the form of posters at universities or through protests, is Xi’s biggest domestic challenge since the 2019 Hong Kong protests against an extradition law.
Xi had claimed personal responsibility for waging the “war” against Covid-19, justified zero-Covid with the need to “put people first” and counted his “correct” Covid policies among his political achievements when he was seeking a precedent-breaking third term at the 20th Communist Party Congress in October.
Nearly three years into the pandemic, China says its policy is not designed to have zero cases all the time, but to act “dynamically” as cases emerge.
While the protests are embarrassing for Xi, they are far from bringing him down, analysts say, because he is in full control of the party, military, security and propaganda machinery.
While some protesters chanted “Down with Xi Jinping, down with the Chinese Communist Party,” most others were concerned only with opposing a lockdown on their residential complexes or being exempted from frequent testing for the virus.
“Once those self-interests are met, most people will be reassured and move on,” said Chen Daoyin, a former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, now a commentator based in Chile.
The students were not well organized or led by a central figure, Chen said. Protests took place in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chengdu and Ürümqi.
At the time of the Tiananmen protests and the crackdown by the Chinese authorities, the last time demonstrations led to the replacement of the party’s general secretary, there were internal disagreements among top party leaders over how to handle the crisis and what path China should take in the future should hit .
Not so with Xi. With Congress, Xi renewed his tenure as party leader and military commander-in-chief, placing his acolytes in all key party positions. Leaders who had previously expressed opposing views or ruled in a different style to his were marginalized.
Though this authoritarian arrangement allowed Xi to rise in power, it also contains vulnerabilities, as revealed by the protests, analysts said.
“By only surrounding himself with people saying things he likes to hear, Xi is trapping himself in an echo chamber, which could cause him to underestimate or lose touch with how much people are under his Covid policies suffered,” he told Lance Gore, China expert at the East Asian Institute in Singapore.
The protests are exacerbating what has been an increasing predicament for Xi: how to revert from policies that were initially a source of pride but are becoming a growing burden.
If he bowed to public pressure and rolled back zero-Covid, he would appear weak, which could encourage people to take to the streets whenever they want change in the future.
“If he lets go it would mean his previous zero Covid policy has completely failed and he would have to take responsibility for it. He loses face as a result,” said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights activist, lawyer and scholar.
It is not in Xi’s character to back down, the analysts said.
Xi has stressed the need to prevent a “color revolution” or anti-government protests, most recently when speaking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan in September. He also lamented in a closed-door speech that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed because no one was “many enough” to rise to the challenge.
If he changed the course of his Covid-19 policies before China was prepared, it could lead to widespread disease, deaths and an overwhelmed medical system, consequences that are hard to swallow.
But if he prevails before he finds a way to declare victory and call back, he risks even more trouble from an increasingly well-fed citizenry while economic growth falters.
Xi last month sought to streamline the zero-Covid policy with the release of “20 Measures” to standardize prevention measures across the country and make them more citizen- and business-friendly.
However, since Xi has not officially waived the need to contain all outbreaks, many local authorities are still playing it safe and implementing stricter lockdown and quarantine rules than those set out in the “20 Measures”.
“At this point, they seem clueless,” said Willy Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
“On the one hand, Xi Jinping and his faction appeared to be omnipotent. But at the same time… we see a total lack of response from the new government.”
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/asia-pacific/china-protests-highlight-xis-covid-policy-dilemma-to-walk-it-back-or-not-42180469.html The protests in China highlight the dilemma of Xi’s Covid policy – to go back or not