Protests across the country reveal deep anger and frustration at three years of lockdowns and social control.
by The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, November 27, 2022
China’s Communist Party runs the world’s most extensive surveillance and police state, so any public protest against its policies takes courage and runs great personal risk. That’s all the more reason to recognize the widespread demonstrations that broke out this weekend against the Chinese government’s draconian zero-Covid restrictions.
They reveal the public’s deep frustration after three years of the world’s most restrictive Covid policies that have shut down entire cities for weeks and months on government orders without public debate or recourse.
The trigger for the protests seems to have been an apartment fire in Urumqi, in Xinjiang province. Fire trucks reportedly had difficulty getting access to put out the fire, which killed 10. Xinjiang has been under its most recent Covid lockdown since August, and it is the Western province where Beijing has imposed mass confinement and re-education of the Uyghur Muslim minority.
The protests spread quickly throughout China as young people in particular went to the streets. Some held blank sheets of paper, which has become a symbolic protest against the restrictions on speaking against the Covid coercion and other abuses.
Local protests aren’t uncommon in China, typically against some environmental, commercial or local government abuse. The protesters typically appeal to Beijing to right the wrong. But these protests are notable for criticizing a national policy and Communist government excesses. Video from Shanghai even showed Chinese shouting “Xi Jinping, step down!”—referring to the head of the Communist Party who was recently anointed for a third term as Chinese President. Even saying those words aloud could land them in prison.
Covid poses a particular threat in China because the regime has advertised zero-Covid as an example of the superiority of its Communist system over messy Western democracy. The policy has kept the number of Covid deaths low compared to the West, if you trust China’s official statistics.
But the lockdowns haven’t been able to control Covid, only delay its spread. Nearly three years of lockdowns mean the Chinese public has far less natural immunity. In their blinkered nationalism, Chinese leaders refused to import Western mRNA vaccines. The domestic Sinovac vaccine offers less protection as the coronavirus mutates.
China’s elderly are especially vulnerable, and there is too little hospital space to accommodate seriously ill patients if the country eases Covid restrictions. The southern city of Guangzhou said this month it is building quarantine facilities and hospital beds for 250,000 people.
Westerners who admire Chinese “stability” and central planning might consider that the government has had three years of Covid to prepare the hospital system. Rest assured Party commissars in Beijing won’t wait in line for an intensive-care bed.
Authoritarian regimes often conceal simmering discontent until it suddenly breaks out. China’s leaders fear public protests in the calmest of times, and Covid will heighten their anxiety. Lockdowns have caused economic growth to slow to less than 3% this year, and the real-estate bust is shrinking the net worth of tens of millions of middle-class Chinese.
Mr. Xi and the Party will be ruthless in putting down protests if they continue. Police broke up peaceful demonstrations in Shanghai and other cities on Saturday and Sunday, and videos recorded on iPhones show arrests being made. The Party’s security apparatus will use its monitoring ability and facial recognition to identify the participants, and many if not all of the demonstrators will be arrested in the days ahead. Many will simply disappear.
But it is important to watch if the regime begins to ease zero-Covid, even if it doesn’t admit this as a response to the protests. Look to see, too, if signs of dissent appear among Party elites. Despite his recent elevation to Mao-like status, Mr. Xi’s control may not be as total as Party propagandists suggest.
The rest of us should welcome this Chinese uprising against Party control, even if it is mainly aimed at zero-Covid. President Biden ought to find his voice to support popular protests that remain peaceful, though no doubt Beijing will use whatever foreigners say to claim the protests are U.S.-inspired. But the Chinese public knows who is responsible for zero-Covid, and it isn’t a foreign power.