Frustration and grievances over China’s zero-COVID policy have led to large protests in more than a dozen cities, on a scale unseen since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.
These youth-led social protests involved open calls for a change not just in COVID-19 policies but in governance and politics as well. The big message from the scenes coming out of China: The suppression of policy debates in an increasingly centralised bureaucracy can ignite social unrest overnight despite intensified censorship and security enforcement.
For the moment, the Chinese Community Party has responded by moving to ease some virus restrictions despite high daily case numbers, signalling softened positions in the face of mounting protests.
But the key test for President Xi Jinping lies ahead: What has he really learned from the outpouring of anger on China’s streets, in its universities and at its factories?
After the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which were triggered by the death of pro-reform leader Hu Yaobang, the ruling CCP drew lessons from the incident by adopting a collective leadership model that was more open towards policy debates in government and in society.
The Chinese leaders who followed, including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, moved away from strongman politics towards a power-sharing model at the top. More broadly, the CCP underwent a thorough shift — what was labelled “re-institutionalisation” — led by senior leaders like Zeng Qinghong (China’s vice president under Hu Jintao), Li Yuanchao (vice president during the early years of Xi’s rule), and political theorist Wang Huning.
This move towards a semblance of inner-party democracy encouraged policy debates at various levels and pushed forward a decentralisation process that empowered local officials to promote economic development. Some observers described the process as an example of the CCP’s “authoritarian resilience”, in which a single leader could not dominate policy-making in all realms and had to share power with other colleagues in the Politburo and its Standing Committee — the party’s top bodies.
The political game was transformed from the conventional winner-take-all model to a power-balancing model, in which all of the Politburo Standing Committee members were vested with almost equal political authority, resulting in more power-sharing and high-level checks and balances. The regime’s authoritarian feature was lessened by fragmented policy enforcement, relatively subdued censorship and abundant policy debates.
Xi became a game changer in 2012, when he replaced Hu Jintao as CCP general secretary and started a “re-centralisation” process that consolidated his power as the core leader of the party.
Facing a disgruntled society vexed by yawning income disparity and corruption, Xi borrowed from Mao Zedong’s tactical playbook and urged civil servants and military officers to reconnect with the common people — while tightening limits to discussions of ideas such as democracy and freedom of speech.
With the ruling party’s tightening control of the media and the rectification of ideology, opinion leaders in China have appeared more cautious than before about voicing different views over public policies or human rights. This has brought the move towards more robust policy debates within the CCP under Jiang and Hu to a screeching halt. The result: increased risks from policy blunders, since there are fewer checks and balances in place.
Lessons from the protests
China’s early success in curbing the spread of coronavirus won praise from home and abroad, but increasingly, the economic and social cost of its draconian zero-COVID policy has become unbearable.
Anger against the seemingly unending chain of lockdowns has spread like wildfire and public unhappiness at travel restrictions has reached boiling point.
Throughout the year, people have expressed frustration over access to medical care and complained about difficulties buying food as delivery services were overloaded. Some reported poor conditions in quarantine centres and questioned why those who tested positive must be locked up in these facilities even when they were asymptomatic. Others have voiced anger at the policy of separating COVID-positive babies and young children from their parents.
The recent protests suggest that all of these sentiments are now coming together. These are the first nationwide demonstrations in decades, spanning university students, small business owners and common Chinese citizens. It was triggered by a fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, that killed 10 people who were allegedly in a building that was in lockdown.
This also followed a recent accident in Guizhou province, where 27 bus passengers were killed on their way to a quarantine facility. The government should have heeded the zero-COVID fatigue and grievances. But that would have been possible only if policymakers were more responsive towards complaints on social media and more consultative with public health professionals and social groups.
Tightened censorship in a year of power transition — the CCP held its 20th party Congress in October — has blunted officials’ sensitivity towards the boiling anger in society towards lasting lockdowns and testing.
After mass protests against COVID-19 restrictions in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States, Chinese authorities should have been aware of the risks associated with stringent quarantine and lockdown measures. However, no serious debates over COVID-19 policy were conducted in the public realm due to intensified censorship and surveillance.
If Xi wants further evidence of the dangers of the path he has adopted, he need look no further than the aftermath of the recent death of Jiang. The former CCP chief and Chinese president has been mourned by many Chinese. Jiang was no Hu Yaobang — in fact, he came to power in the aftermath of the brutal crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. Still, he is viewed by many to have represented a bygone era when China was perceived to be relatively freer and more tolerant of different opinions.
By now it should be clear to the Chinese leadership that it is unrealistic to hope to eliminate COVID-19 entirely through lockdowns and repeated testing, given the Omicron variant’s high transmissibility and the large number of asymptomatic cases.
The recent protests themselves have not dented Xi’s political authority, but unless it adapts, the government may encounter a growing political backlash against its COVID-19 policy. There is also a broader lesson here: The public demonstration of anger has sent a clear signal to the leadership that public policy debates — where a range of views is allowed — are vital to understanding the pulse of the masses. It is a motto Xi himself has emphasised many times. Now he knows the risks of not translating those words into action.