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What unrest and anger in China’s cities reveal

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Cities across China have witnessed protests over the past week, as people have demonstrated their anger and frustration with the persistence and costs of the zero-Covid policy. What triggered the protests was an apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which led to the death of 10 people. Reports of the Covid-19 lockdown in the city hampering rescue efforts ignited widespread anger on social media. Soon, this anger, fuelled further by official denials and online censorship, spilled onto the streets of major cities in the country. In Shanghai, hundreds gathered along Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi, demanded the lifting of lockdowns and basic human rights, and carried blank pieces of paper to protest the lack of freedom of expression. Similar protests have since been seen in cities such as Wuhan, Chengdu, Beijing, and Nanjing, among others. In some instances, protesters have gone beyond simply demanding an end to lockdowns and mass testing to call for freedom, respect for universal values, and for Xi Jinping to step down.

To be fair, these are not the first set of protests regarding China’s Covid-19 policies over the past three years. What’s important to note, however, is the scale and the commonalities in the modes of protesting across different cities. This implies the incipient development of a radically networked society (RNS). An RNS comprises hyper-connected individuals linked by both real and imagined identities and motivated by a common cause. Such movements tend to be characterised by rapid scalability, diffused leadership, shared languages and expressions and amorphous decision-making structures, thereby presenting unique challenges to the hierarchical apparatuses of the state.

Despite this, it is too early to assume that the protests present a major or systemic challenge to the Communist Party’s rule in the country. The party-State has spent years and billions in strengthening its surveillance, policing and mass control capabilities. One should be cautious in reading too much into its flat-footed response. There are significant coercive tools at the party-State’s disposal, and there is some experience in dealing with RNS protests, such as the 2019-20 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

That said, the Chinese leadership today finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the zero-Covid policy is increasingly unsustainable. The protests have shown that popular support for the policy is rapidly eroding. The unpredictability and disruption that the policy engenders are damaging economic growth, hurting local businesses, and weakening foreign investor sentiment. On the other hand, containing Covid-related deaths is a legacy issue for Xi and is key to the party’s legitimacy. The propaganda apparatus and Xi himself have spent the past three years portraying the fight against Covid and low infection and death rates as examples of the superiority of the Chinese party-State system as opposed to a liberal democracy. In addition, Beijing has projected itself as a global champion in the fight against the pandemic through its vaccine diplomacy.

Despite this, China’s domestic vaccination campaign has left much to be desired. While around 90% of the country’s population has received a full course of vaccination, only 86% of people over 60 have been fully vaccinated, with 68% receiving boosters. The numbers fall to 65.7% for fully vaccinated and only 40% for boosters, when it comes to people over 80. Essentially, what this means is that as the government loosens controls, infections and, potentially, deaths, particularly among the elderly, will rise. This will invariably place a burden on the limited medical resources in the country, and could potentially lead to greater instability.

This is a wicked problem. Over the past few weeks, the Chinese central leadership has signalled greater intent with regard to easing Covid control requirements. On November 11, a day after the new Politburo Standing Committee discussed the zero-Covid policy, the State council announced 20 optimisation measures. These included easing quarantine durations, a call for limited testing, and a demand that local governments do not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach or incremental restrictions.

Instead, local governments were told to focus on timely and precise interventions to protect lives as their primary objective through early detection, reporting, quarantine, and treatment while also minimising the impact of the policy on the economy and reducing friction in terms of daily living. Squaring this circle is no easy feat, resulting in local officials prioritising containment over other aspects. That, from their perspective, is the politically safer route. This became apparent in the days following the release of the 20 measures. As the number of infections began to rise, local governments tended to revert to the old playbook. Even the messaging from the central authorities has reiterated that the optimisation measures do not imply an easing of the zero-Covid policy. These, a commentary in the People’s Daily argued recently, do not amount to “lying flat”, ie, a policy of living with the virus. In other words, after taking a step forward, the system appeared to retreat.

If there is a positive for Beijing in all of this, it is that perhaps that the protests will inject greater urgency to move away from zero-Covid. How to achieve this and satisfy the demands of the angry, urban elite while minimising the public health costs for the elderly is the policy challenge before the leadership.

In managing this, the Chinese State appears to be deploying a mix of coercive and accommodative approaches. The former ranges from intimidation of protesters to limiting the flow of information that can fuel anger and mobilise people. The latter revolves around public messaging related to the virus and vaccination and operational tweaks to how the zero-Covid policy is implemented. Whether this can be sustained amid a spike in cases and, potentially, deaths among vulnerable populations is worth watching. For the moment, a smooth and orderly exit from zero-Covid appears unlikely.

Manoj Kewalramani is fellow, China Studies, The Takshashila Institution

The views expressed are personal

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