China's Xi Faces Threat From Protests 11/28 06:20
SHANGHAI (AP) -- Barely a month after granting himself new powers as China's
potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger of the
kind not seen for decades, sparked by his "zero COVID" strategy that will soon
enter its fourth year.
Demonstrators poured into the streets over the weekend in cities including
Shanghai and Beijing, criticizing the policy, confronting police -- and even
calling for Xi to step down. Students at some universities also protested.
Widespread demonstrations are unprecedented since the army crushed the 1989
student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Most protesters focused their anger on restrictions that can confine
families to their homes for months and have been criticized as neither
scientific nor effective. Some complained the system is failing to respond to
The cries for the resignation of Xi and the end of the Communist Party that
has ruled China for 73 years could be deemed sedition, which is punishable by
In response, police in Shanghai used pepper spray to drive away
demonstrators, and dozens were detained in police sweeps and taken away in
police vans and buses. China's vast internal security apparatus is also famed
for identifying people it considers troublemakers and picking them up later
when few are watching.
The possibility of more protests is unclear. Government censors scrubbed the
internet of videos and messages supporting them. And analysts say unless
divisions emerge, the Communist Party should be able to contain the dissent.
China's stringent measures were originally accepted for minimizing deaths
while other countries suffered devastating waves of infections, but that
consensus has begun to fray in recent weeks.
While the ruling party says anti-coronavirus measures should be "targeted
and precise" and cause the least possible disruption to people's lives, local
officials are threatened with losing their jobs or other punishments if
outbreaks occur. They have responded by imposing quarantines and other
restrictions that protesters say exceed what the central government allows.
Xi's unelected government doesn't seem too concerned with the hardships
brought by the policy. This spring, millions of Shanghai residents were placed
under a strict lockdown that resulted in food shortages, restricted access to
medical care and economic pain. Nevertheless, in October, the city's party
secretary, a Xi loyalist, was appointed to the Communist Party's No. 2 position.
The party has long imposed surveillance and travel restrictions on
minorities including Tibetans and Muslim groups such as Uyghurs, more than 1
million of whom have been detained in camps where they are forced to renounce
their traditional culture and religion and swear fealty to Xi.
But this weekend's protests included many members of the educated urban
middle class from the ethnic Han majority. The ruling party relies on that
group to abide by an unwritten post-Tiananmen agreement to accept autocratic
rule in exchange for a better quality of life.
Now, it appears that old arrangement has ended as the party enforces control
at the expense of the economy, said Hung Ho-fung of Johns Hopkins University.
"The party and the people are trying to seek a new equilibrium," he said.
"There will be some instability in the process."
To develop into something on the scale of the 1989 protests would require
clear divisions within the leadership that could be leveraged for change, Hung
Xi all but eliminated such threats at an October party congress. He broke
with tradition and awarded himself a third five-year term as party leader and
packed the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee with loyalists. Two
potential rivals were sent into retirement.
"Without the clear signal of party leader divisions ... I would expect this
kind of protest might not last very long," Hung said.
It's "unimaginable" that Xi would back down, and the party is experienced in
handling protests, Hung said.
China is now the only major country still trying to stop transmission of the
virus that was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.
The normally supportive head of the World Health Organization has called
"zero COVID" unsustainable. Beijing dismissed his remarks as irresponsible, but
public acceptance of the restrictions has worn thin.
People who are quarantined at home in some areas say they lack food and
medicine. And the ruling party faced anger over the deaths of two children
whose parents said anti-virus controls hampered efforts to get emergency
Protests then erupted after a fire on Thursday killed at least 10 people in
an apartment building in the city of Urumqi in the northwest, where some
residents have been locked in their homes for four months. That prompted an
outpouring of angry questions online about whether firefighters or people
trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other pandemic restrictions.
Yet Xi, an ardent nationalist, has politicized the issue to the point that
exiting the "zero COVID" policy could be seen as a loss to his reputation and
"Zero COVID" was "supposed to demonstrate the superiority of the 'Chinese
model,' but ended up demonstrating the risk that when authoritarian regimes
make mistakes, those mistakes can be colossal," said Andrew Nathan, a Chinese
politics specialist at Columbia University. He 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 to
yield. It has lots of force, and if necessary, it will use it," Nathan said.
"If it could hold onto power in the face of the pro-democracy demonstrations of
1989, it can do so again now."