Young people with guitars singing the Internationale in Yunnan. Shouts of “down with the Party” and “down with Xi Jinping” in Shanghai. Proclaims against “covid zero” in front of an elite university in Beijing. China is experiencing its biggest wave of protests in decades. The protesters’ request: eliminate the “zero covid” policy that has imposed harsh lockdowns and restrictions since the pandemic began in the country. At the beginning of the epidemic, as in the rest of the world, the closure of cities was seen as necessary. And in China, in terms of saving lives, it was more successful. But as the world got vaccinated and resumed normal life, the Chinese context began to seem more and more strange.
The young Chinese who are now protesting have seen for months how most of the world leads a normal life, while they cannot recover their social, economic and movement freedoms from before the pandemic. They can’t live a normal life or make money like before. Urumqi, the city where ten people died from a fire and the protests began, had been in semi-confinement for more than 100 days. Young and old, rich and poor, businessmen and workers, members and non-members of the Party have suffered from the “zero covid” policy. A national policy has created a national protest movement that no one expected in the country.
The protesters mostly ask for the end of the “zero covid”, although there are some cries asking for democracy or criticizing the Party. The young generation that is participating in this protest is more nationalistic and skeptical of the West than that of Tiananmen in 1989. But that does not prevent them from wanting more social freedoms and expression than they are today, although without calling for a change in model. For the Party this type of protest at the national level is new.
Normally, the Government has to deal with local outbreaks due to corruption, labor or environmental issues. He usually applies the carrot and stick strategy, arresting the leaders of the protests, while accepting part of the protesters’ demands. With the protests against the “zero covid” policy, this strategy is less feasible. On the one hand, due to the human cost that eliminating “covid zero” could have. A model of Nature It predicts around 1.5 million deaths and only one in 15 seriously ill can be treated in an ICU.
Beijing has not allowed the use of Western vaccines in the country (which have turned out to be more effective than Chinese ones) and has also not achieved high vaccination rates among the elderly. The scenario is serious. China is now passing 30,000 infections a day, the highest number since the pandemic began. Allowing the use of foreign mRNA vaccines and promoting an intense vaccination campaign among the elderly are necessary steps.
The response to the protests also has a political reading. The “zero covid” strategy is clearly associated with the national government and Xi Jinping. The criticism heard on the streets of China points in that direction. There have already been arrests and they will surely increase, but if the repression were more violent, that could create a rebound effect of attracting more protesters. Most of China is up to the minute through social networks about what is happening in the protests. The government can also expect the demonstrations to die down on their own, but that could convey that the Party turns a deaf ear to citizen demands. At the same time, if you agree to the protesters’ demands, this could embolden them to demand even more. There is no easy way out for the Chinese government.
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