China’s Xi faces public anger over draconian ‘zero-COVID’

SHANGHAI – Barely a month after bestowing himself with new powers as China’s potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger not seen in decades, unleashed by his draconian “zero-COVID” program , which will soon enter its fourth year.

Demonstrators took to the streets in numerous cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, over the weekend, chanting slogans and confronting police. There were also protests on several university campuses.

Such widespread demonstrations are unprecedented since the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which was crushed by the army with deadly force.

Most people at the weekend’s protests focused their anger on rigid pandemic lockdowns, a form of virtual house arrest that can last for months and when hasn’t been criticized scientifically or effectively.

But even after the fall of Xi and the Communist Party, which has ruled China with an iron fist for 73 years, some have called out criticism that is considered inflammatory and punishable by years in prison. The protesters expressed their frustration at a system that is neither working as promised nor responding to their concerns.

So far, the authorities’ response has been muted. Some Shanghai police officers used pepper spray to disperse protesters, and some protesters were arrested and taken away on a bus. However, China’s vast internal security apparatus is famous for identifying people it deems troublemakers and carting them from their homes when few are looking.

Police in Shanghai also punched, kicked and handcuffed a BBC journalist who was filming the protests. Authorities said they arrested him for his own good “if he catches COVID from the crowd,” the BBC said in a statement.

“We do not think this is a credible explanation,” it said.

The possibility of further protests is unclear and state censors have scoured the internet for videos and messages supporting the demonstrations.

The central government, meanwhile, reiterated its stance that anti-coronavirus measures should be “targeted and precise” and affect people’s lives as little as possible.

However, this does not seem to be reflected at the local level. Cadres face losing their jobs or other penalties if outbreaks occur in their areas of responsibility, prompting them to choose the most radical options.

Xi’s unelected government doesn’t seem too concerned about the difficulties politics pose. This spring, millions of Shanghai residents have been under strict lockdown, leading to food shortages, restricted access to medical care and severe economic hardship. Still, in October, the city’s most powerful official, a longtime Xi loyalist, was appointed to the Communist Party’s No. 2 position.

The party has long imposed repressive surveillance and travel restrictions on those least able to oppose them, particularly Tibetans and members of Muslim minorities such as the Uyghurs, more than 1 million of whom are being held in camps where they are being coerced to abandon their traditional culture and religion and pledge allegiance to Xi.

But this weekend’s protests included many members of the urban educated middle class from the majority Han ethnic group.

This is precisely the demographic the party relies on to maintain an unwritten agreement after 1989, in which the public accepted autocratic rule and a lack of civil liberties in exchange for improvements in the quality of life.

But now the party’s implementation of its “zero-COVID” policy shows it is stepping up its scrutiny at the expense of the economy, meaning the old regime is over, said Hung Ho-fung of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.

“The whole situation reflects that the party and the people are trying to find a new balance, and there will be some instability,” he said.

To evolve into anything on the scale of the 1989 protests would require clear splits within the leadership that could be used to effect change, Hung said. Xi all but eliminated such threats at a party convention in October, when he gave himself a new term and filled the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee with loyalists and retired two potential rivals.

“Without the clear signal from the party leaders’ departments … I would expect this type of protest not to last very long,” Hung said.

It is “unimaginable” that Xi would back down and the party is experienced in handling protests, Hung said.

With its “zero-COVID” policy, introduced shortly after the coronavirus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, China is now the only major country still trying to stop transmission of the virus entirely, rather than to learn to live with it.

That has kept China’s infection numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries, but public acceptance of the restrictions has waned. People quarantining at home in some areas say they are short of food and medicine. The ruling party has faced public anger after the deaths of two children whose parents said antivirus controls had hampered their efforts to get medical help.

And the number of cases continues to rise, jumping from less than 30,000 a day over the past week to 40,273 on Monday. While China initially had a strong vaccination program, it has lost momentum since the summer.

The current protests erupted after a fire on Thursday killed at least 10 people at an apartment building in the northwest city of Urumqi, where some residents were confined in their homes for four months. This prompted a flurry of angry questions online about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were being blocked by locked doors or other pandemic restrictions.

China has stuck by the policy despite criticism from the normally supportive head of the World Health Organization, who called it unsustainable. Beijing dismissed his statements as irresponsible.

And on Sunday, White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said measures like shutdowns were only temporary.

“It seems like in China it was just a very, very strict extraordinary lockdown where you lock people inside the house but with no apparent endgame,” Fauci said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

But Xi, an ardent nationalist, has politicized the issue to the point that exiting the “zero-COVID” policy could be seen as a loss of reputation and authority.

“Zero COVID” was meant to “demonstrate the superiority of the ‘Chinese model,’ but in the end it demonstrated the risk of authoritarian regimes making mistakes that can be colossal,” said Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics at Columbia University, who edited The Tiananmen Papers, an insider account of the government’s response to the 1989 protests.

“But I think the regime has backed itself into a corner and has no way of backing down. It has a lot of power, and it will use it when necessary,” Nathan said.

“If it was able to remain in power in the face of the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, it can now do so again.”


Associated Press reporter Kanis Leung and Hong Kong researcher Alice Fung contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. China’s Xi faces public anger over draconian ‘zero-COVID’

Sarah Y. Kim

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