Unusual protests in China due to the zero-Covid-19 policy may have affected Chinese President Xi Jinping’s power.
China recently reported that approximately 60,000 people with Covid-19 had died in hospitals since it abandoned its zero-COVID policy last month. China has been under lockdown, which forced residents to stay home for several months.
It appeared that due to the isolation, firefighters were troubled to reach out to victims of a deadly fire incident, which triggered people to come to the street, demanding an end to the lockdown. Do these protests affect Xi Jinping’s leadership?
As the protestor numbers swelled, many even used this momentum to demand greater political freedoms, including the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Some people shouted for Xi to ‘step down’ and sang The Internationale, a socialist anthem used for wide demonstration, including during a pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The ‘pro-democracy’ protests are always there, but Xi may not be able to afford the bigger wave if it gets bigger. Although, without a doubt, the protest will not necessarily affect Xi’s power in the Chinese, but after the demonstrations swept China, a top official signalled a softer approach to Covid-19. The zero-Covid policy was then abandoned not long after the demonstrations peaked. Some cities have changed the Covid-19 policies, including lifting lockdowns, easing quarantine requirements, and eliminating mass testing.
On different occasions, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, Xi Jinping himself stated that the ‘colour revolutions,’ a term for pro-democracy, must be prevented. Xi’s statement reflects that, as a communist country, he considers the colour revolution a threat to preserving his ideologies and values.
Why is this ‘unusual’ protest in China so significant?
An Associate Professor at Georgia State, Maria Repnikova, argues that although protests do occur in China, they rarely happen on this large scale and take direct aim at the president.
As a communist country, China has restricted its people with fewer rights to voice their opinion, with also a high-tech surveillance state to control its citizen. On this demonstration, CNN reported that at least 23 demonstrations took place across 17 Chinese cities, including in Beijing and Shanghai. Not only in China but solidarity support in China has also begun worldwide, driven by the Chinese diaspora.
The social unrest in China is a tipping point in Covid dissent. Many people have been discontented with the Covid-19 restriction, which complicates a situation that is already difficult for the government. Many of these protestors are young people frustrated by the condition, and they demand policy changes, and at some points, China and its executives ‘hear’ the people.
Why does Xi Jinping change his Covid-19 policy?
For almost three years, the country has strictly kept the zero-Covid policy to keep infections at bay. Still, since Xi Jinping made a turn in his policies and abandoned the ‘zero-Covid’ strategy, it has brought a costly effect on political and public health terms.
In June 2020, China’s State Council (the cabinet) announced that the pandemic had posed a crucial test for Chinese’s government system and also the party’s ability to maintain its credibility during the Covid-19 spread.
Differing from democratic countries whose policies are the result of public debate, including political opposition and media, the Chinese autocratic system seeks legitimacy from their outcomes. Even in an autocracy, in addition to using coercion to enforce policies, the Chinese executive still needs to ‘convince’ its citizens.
There were some speculations on the internal governments in China to a more relaxed approach to Covid-19. The protests due to Covid-19 and the economic situation added more degree to passing the ease Covid-19 restrictions policy, allowing economic growth.
China’s economy in 2022 also grew by just 3 per cent, resulting from the longstanding zero-Covid strategy. It was China’s second-lowest GDP growth in more than 40 years. As the Covid-19 restriction eases, Xi is trying to stimulate China to put the economy back on track while reducing social tension and protests in China.
The halt of the zero-Covid strategy without the preparation of vaccination and the strengthening of public health infrastructure has caused a new outbreak in China. Xi needs to brace for more Covid-19 cases and its domino effects in the social and political aspects.