Tag Archives: protests

China Cracks Down On Zero-Covid Protests, Hints At Exit Strategy

AUTHORITIES ARE CRACKING down on those involved in the weekend’s protests against China’s zero-Covid policy. By the standards of these things, they are taking a relatively light-handed, although still firm, approach.

Heavy police presence and the closure of streets where demonstrators had planned to gather averted a third day of protests in Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and other cities around the country. Authorities have questioned known protestors, tracking some down to their homes, but reports suggest those detained are being released the same day. Nonetheless, the warnings will have been sent. The censorship of social media has gone into overdrive.

The elimination of independent media and non-governmental organisations, critical conduits for turning popular discontent into organised political action in autocratic and semi-autocratic states, always made it unlikely that the weekend’s protests would develop into something more threatening to the leadership in Beijing.

The scale of the numbers taking to the streets will likely have caused surprise and concern, and the widespread student involvement may have been more alarming, given the historical role of student protest in Chinese politics. Nonetheless, neither would have been seen as being beyond the capabilities of a well-honed security apparatus to suppress.

State media are now spinning a narrative that the worst abuses of the zero-Covid regime are the responsibility of over-zealous local officials, not the central government, the target of some protestors’ ire over the weekend. Exemplary punishments for some hapless local officials can be expected.

Public health officials are reiterating that the zero-Covid policy will continue, but in mollifying terms. The frustration and anger at zero-Covid cuts across all socio-economic classes, so it is difficult to fall back on the playbook of vilifying one group as troublemakers as politically motivated or portraying the protests as the work of hostile foreign interests.

That has not stopped the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission wheeling out the well-practiced line that it was ‘necessary to crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law’.

More notably to this Bystander, officials are stressing the need to step up vaccination of the elderly, the most vulnerable group to the latest outbreaks of infection. Only once vaccination rates are improved can an exit strategy from zero-Covid be contemplated.


Filed under Politics & Society

Covid-19 Protests Pose A Potential Tipping Point For China

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.


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Beijing Fires Its Top Hong Kong Official

BEIJING HAS REPLACED its top official in Hong Kong, a sign of its growing impatience with the handling of the six months of protest that have roiled the city.

Wang Zhimin, who has been the director of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong since 2017, has been replaced by Luo Huining, formerly party boss in the northern province of Shanxi.

The change was announced in a terse, two-sentence statement but came amid growing speculation that Wang’s days were numbered, speculation that has only intensified following the defeat of pro-government and pro-Beijing candidates in November’s district council elections.

The 65 years old Luo has no known connections with Hong Kong, suggesting the top leadership in Beijing plans to clean out the Liaison Office of officials who have a historic closeness to the Hong Kong bureaucracy that it believes impaired their effectiveness in dealing with the protests.

Luo’s party seniority and age support this view.  He has been a full member of the Party’s Central Committee for eight years and has a reputation for having being a reliable executor in Shanxi of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. He had previously risen through the ranks in Qinghai in western China.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, remains in place, at least for now, having been publicly praised last month by Xi for her courage in ‘most difficult’ times.

These look set to continue, with tens of thousands of protesters welcoming in the new year with largely peaceful pro-democracy marches (not the ‘rampage‘ reported by state media). At the same time, in a New Year’s speech, Xi reinforced Beijing’s wish for a ‘stable and prosperous’ Hong Kong. Bridging the two will be Luo’s not inconsiderable task.


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Hong Kong Protestors’ Electoral Win May Stiffen Beijing’s Resolve

THE QUESTION NOW is, how will Beijing react?

The landslide victory of the pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s district elections on Sunday and the high turnout that accompanied it has removed any lingering doubts of how widespread is the support for the protests that have been underway in the city for more than three months.

Pro-democracy councillors won a majority of 452 seats up for election taking nearly 60% of the vote. They will now control 17 of the 18 district councils. Pro-Beijing councillors controlled the lot before. Turnout was a record 71%, against 45% in 2015, with just shy of 3 million Hongkongers voting, twice as many as in the previous district elections.

It seems that the pro-Beijing camp massively underestimated the popular support for the protests and believed, erroneously as it turned out, that the election results would underline that, allowing authorities to portray the results as a rejection of violence and to crack down further on the hardest-line protestors. Had they had a more accurate grip on the public mood, the elections might have been cancelled coming as they did at the end of the most violent fortnight of protests to date.

The councils have little authority beyond advising on litter collection and similar hyperlocal matters, but the vote was always going to be a referendum on Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s handling of the protests. In a post-election statement, she said:

The HKSAR Government respects the election results. There are various analyses and interpretations in the community in relation to the results, and quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society. The HKSAR Government will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.

While state media’s reporting of the results has been muted, to say the least, the stridently nationalist Party-controlled Global Times took a less conciliatory view in an editorial:

Hong Kong radical forces and Western supporters behind them wanted to stage a political demonstration during the voting. They tried to deny the urgency of ending chaos in Hong Kong. But we want to say that the pro-democracy camp winning more seats doesn’t mean Hong Kong voters support violent demonstrations.


All forces in Hong Kong, including the opposition, must compete for influence in the establishment. No one should follow the devious path of street politics.

The most significant aspect of the district council elections lies in the nomination powers the pro-democracy protestors will now acquire. The winner of the district council elections can nominate six people to the Legislative Council and 117 to the 1,200-member election committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive. Pro-Beijing loyalists’ domination of this committee will not disappear, but the opposition will be able to provide more than a little nuisance value to a process that Beijing has previously portrayed as an exercise in choice, albeit a carefully managed one.

Hong Kong’s problems are political and thus will eventually require a political solution. The election results offer Beijing an opportunity to make at least a gesture in the direction of political reform, as it did during the Umbrella protests in 2014 when it proposed to Hongkongers that they elect a leader directly from a list of candidates it had pre-approved. This, however, was rejected by the leaders of the Umbrella protests.

This time around, pro-democracy leaders may feel emboldened by the election results again not to need to make compromises on their five demands, which include universal suffrage. The later is unacceptable to the Party leadership, whose distrust of autonomy and distaste for the uncertainty of elections will now match its lack of confidence in Lam, although it has no credible alternative to her at present.

Lam says she will listen humbly to the Hong Kong public, but there is not much to hear that she has not already heard. In such unpromising conditions, Beijing may well feel it has no choice but to react with action not words, and crack down even harder than before.


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US Congress Support For Hong Kong Still Needs Trump’s Approval

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP has acquired another joker for his pack of US-China trade deal cards.

The US Senate has passed a bill that would require the US administration to attest each year to Hong Kong’s special status, much as it has to regarding whether China is a currency manipulator or not.

Notably, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act mandates the US Department of Commerce to determine annually whether “Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from China to justify its unique treatment {by the United States}” and whether China is using Hong Kong to evade U.S. export controls and sanctions.

If such confirmations are not forthcoming, it could lead to the loss of Hong Kong’s special trade status with the United States. In turn, that would make Hong Kong exports subject to US tariffs on Chinese goods.

An annual review would also increase the level of uncertainty for businesses there for as long as US-China relations remain politically fraught.

The House of Representative moved similar legislation earlier. Both bills passed on a voice vote, as they were considered uncontentious.

After the two bills are reconciled into a unified version, they will still require the president’s signature to become law.

Beijing has condemned the legislation and urged the Trump administration to block it. Whether Trump does or not will turn more on the state of the US-China trade negotiations than it will on the state of the evermore violent protests in Hong Kong.


Filed under China-U.S., Hong Kong, Trade

No End In Sight To Hong Kong’s Violent Protests

THE VIOLENCE IN Hong Kong has reached a new level. There have now been two deaths with two others critically injured. The protests have moved from weekends to weekdays with traffic in the city centre being brought to a halt for the fifth successive day by protesting office workers, an attempt to stretch the resources of police attempting to storm university campuses, the protesting students’ strongholds but previously considered sanctuaries.

President Xi Jinping has issued his most severe warning to date, saying the protestors were putting ‘one country, two systems’ at risk. One of the city’s top cops said Hong Kong was on the brink of breakdown, and the ever nationalist Global Times warned of direct military intervention by Beijing.

In London, Teresa Cheng, Hong Kong’s justice secretary, was set upon in the street on her way to an event promoting inward investment to the city, providing a further opportunity for Beijing to blame foreign influences for the protests.

It is looking increasingly difficult to see where this ends. To many in Hong Kong, the government remains intransigent, and police brutality is seen as the reason the protests have become more violent. For its part, Beijing has yet to give any indication that it is willing to even open discussion with the demonstrators over their five key demands. To the contrary, Xi has told the authorities there to clamp down on national security. More than 4,000 protesters already have been arrested.

In other times, putting the city under de facto martial law would have seemed to be the logical conclusion. However, with financial markets already nervous and how the mercurial Trump administration might use such a move in its trade negotiations with Beijing a further wildcard, these are not standard times.


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Back From The Brink

The Shanghai lorry drivers protest has been worn down to an irrelevance after five days by a mix of minor concessions over port fees and determined containment of it from spreading via copycat actions, mostly by the imposition of a news blackout in domestic media though we have heard reports of some drivers being detained by police. Disruption to port traffic turned out to be minimal. As we noted earlier, this was a dispute it was important for the authorities not to lose, and they didn’t. One lingering question, though, is, as the lorry drivers, mostly independent owner-operators, disperse, will the message they carry home be of resigned defeat or of still disgruntled resentment? To snuff out the latter turning into anything and to reinforce the former, any drivers identified by the authorities as organizers can expect to be quietly cracked down on.

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Driven To The Brink

The protests in Shanghai by lorry drivers against rising fuel costs and port fees is a particular nightmare for the Party leadership. Discontent over inflation is a perennial concern for fear it could turn into something more challenging to Party authority. Lorry drivers threaten the tactic of keeping disputes localized and contained. They also have the potential for causing economic as well as political damage. The economic damage is difficult to quantify at this point because of the news blackout that has been imposed but we already hear of delayed shipments out of Baoshan. The disruption will quickly multiply if the Shanghai drivers inspire copycat protests elsewhere, as happened with the foreign-owned car factories where workers struck over pay last summer.

A dispute over rising fuel costs will resonate far beyond a few hundred drivers to the hundreds of thousands of drivers of taxis and farm vehicles who need to buy diesel and have been hit with two price rises this year, and to the broader population suffering from the worst inflation in nearly three years. This is a dispute the authorities can not allow themselves to be seen to lose.

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Protesters Limp Out Of The Olympics

Before the Games, the authorities said that protests would be permitted in three Beijing parks. How many have been allowed to take place? None, according to Xinhua. It says of the 77 applications received by Beijing’s public security bureau, 74 were withdrawn, two were suspended, and one was vetoed.  The majority of the withdrawn applications, Xinhua says, were because the problems they raised — work, health and welfare issues — could be better dealt with by “relevant authorities or departments through consultation”. The vetoed application was turned down because it violated the law on demonstrations and protests.

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China To Allow Designated Olympic Protests

There is something faintly comical about centrally-planned protests, not that China treats dissent with anything but deadly earnest.

Nonetheless, demonstrations will be permitted in three parks in Beijing during the Olympic games, says Liu Shaowu, director of the organizing committee’s security department.

The Guardian calls the designated spots in Shijie, Zizhuyuan and Ritan parks “protest pens”. Would-be demonstrators will be required to apply for permission from the city’s government and police, the BBC reports, although the mechanism for applying seems hazy.

Previous Olympic cities have had designated protest areas but how willingly China, where anti-government protests legal but rare, has followed suit is a moot point given the pre-Games crackdown on dissent. What Beijing can embrace is the International Olympic Committee’s ban on demonstrations or “political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic venues.

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