THE POPULAR DISCONTENT with the restrictions on daily life caused by the zero-Covid strategy has been simmering for months. The way it is now boiling over into mass street protests across China involving clashes with authorities is unprecedented for a country where the forceful imposition of social stability is the norm.
In Shanghai, where there were minor acts of resistance during the two-month lockdown earlier this year, reports say thousands of protestors have taken to the streets over the weekend, with some overtly critical of the Party and its leader, Xi Jinping. Police were seen bundling away those inciting such sentiments.
Protestors also laid flowers in the city’s Urumqi Street in memory of the ten victims of a fire in a locked-down apartment building in the Xinjiang capital on November 24. That deadly event triggered confrontations between residents and authorities amid accusations that residents of the building had not been able to flee and firefighters prevented from arriving by the zero-Covid restrictions (both allegations denied, as would be expected in state media; however on Sunday, Beijing authorities announced a ban on barricading the entrance gates of buildings under lockdown).
Mass protest movements everywhere tend to have a trigger event, often something not so out of the ordinary but occurring at the right moment to kindle smouldering discontent. The Urumqi fire may prove to be that, although equally, the leadership will move rapidly to extinguish any movement that might challenge it.
Beyond the street scuffles from Guangzhou to Lasha and Zhengzhou, there are incipient signs of anti-regime protest in the white banners in Shanghai and white sheets of paper held by students protesting in Beijing and Nanjing, both anti-censorship symbols that were also used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Unverified videos on social media also show students chanting in support of freedom and democracy.
The frustrations and exhaustion of coming up to three years of strict zero-Covid restrictions, quarantines and testing are difficult to imagine elsewhere, where living with the pandemic has become the standard public health policy response. Allowing some dissent to blow off steam is a necessary safety valve in China; regulating it will be the challenge for authorities.
Beijing is boxed in. Zero-Covid is a policy closely attached to Xi and one to which he has repeatedly re-committed. Politically, it cannot be jettisoned overnight.
China’s low vaccination rates among the elderly, especially those over 80, plateauing booster rates and relatively ineffective vaccines compared to the Western mRNA shots that China refused to import make the health risks of lifting the policy unacceptably high. Hospitals would likely be swamped and a wave of mortality would undermine the Party’s narrative of its care for the people in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of deaths accepted by Western governments in their rush to open up for economic reasons.
Efforts to administer the zero-Covid policy more flexibly, including targetted rather than citywide lockdowns and less stringent quarantine rules, have been stymied by the repeated surges of infection caused by the omicron variant of the virus. Finding euphemisms for ‘lockdown’ has become a cottage industry among officials as large city after large city experiences new outbreaks requiring suppression.
The virus has adapted but China’s response to it has not.
Last week, China recorded its highest number of daily Covid cases since the pandemic began, 31,527 cases, a relatively tiny number for a country of 1.4 billion people and having an official Covid death toll of 5,200. That is three deaths per million of the population, compared with a rate a thousand times that in the United States.
China’s zero-Covid policy has saved lives, albeit at a high cost to economic activity. That cost is becoming potentially higher with reports that the giant electronics contract manufacturer, Foxconn, plans to shift half of Apple’s iPhone production from China to India in what would be Covid’s first major impact event on a global value chain.
Hitherto, the leadership has been prepared to accept the economic costs for political reasons. The question now is, how high a price in social stability on top of that will it be prepared to tolerate before the inevitable crackdown occurs.
Update: Protests in Shanghai and Beijing continued for a second night on Sunday.