Written by: Ken Wang
Politically, China is known for its civil obedience because of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s control of the mass society, making China one of the most substantial authoritarian regimes in the world. The pandemic strengthened the CCP’s control through its health code policies, test mandate, stay-at-home order enforcement, community policing, and other mechanisms.
However, as the Coronavirus and its variants became less deadly or severe, China’s zero-COVID policy has grown more restrictive. After getting tired of being told what to do, people have taken to the streets to protest against such policies.
The first protest occurred in Urumqi, but anger and frustration were built-up long before that. About a month before Urumqi, a 14-year-old teenage girl died in a government-regulated quarantine facility due to negligence and lack of medical care, which angered the public. Before this tragedy, roughly six months before the death of the teenage girl, many elderly citizens were facing the same situations in quarantine facilities.
When ten people died in a fire accident in Urumqi during quarantine, the anger and frustration of Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy finally boiled over. Because of these accidents and lack of care, with the lack of accountability on government authorities, many citizens were angry and frustrated, especially with the safety issues.
In the city of Shanghai, one of the major cities in China, many experienced the most strict quarantine rules, and it is costly to enforce in terms of financial and human capital. Even then, the government continued to enforce the stay-at-home orders. Later, citizens of Shanghai joined Urumqi in protesting against Xi’s zero-COVID policies.
In retrospect, we need to ask why did the CCP tighten pandemic-related policies when the United States and other countries began to relax their restrictions, and did China’s zero-COVID policy fail? Most importantly, how has the CCP’s political discourse been affected by the series of protests, and what does it mean regarding Xi’s grip on power?
At the beginning of the pandemic, China kept its case numbers low compared to other countries, partially because of the harsh lockdowns. From the CCP’s perspective, this is an accomplishment because they could use it as an example to exhibit the effectiveness of an authoritarian regime.
The CCP has set a high standard for itself, and as the pandemic continued and new variants emerged, the CCP needed to keep up with this high standard to maintain its image for the public and for its adversaries on the international level. However, as we have seen, this need to maintain its image through zero-COVID policies has certainly backfired.
This backfire, to some extent, has declared Xi’s zero-COVID policy a failure. Theoretically, if the quarantine policies had worked, China should not have experienced a surge in cases, but the fact that there were still an increasing number of cases after quarantine orders proved the quarantine policy somewhat ineffective.
I say somewhat because although restrictive, in China’s experience, it was the best practice for the CCP to have the quarantine under control. I suppose the controversy was when the variants were not as lethal as the first wave, yet the CCP did not adjust its policies like other countries did.
As described above, because the CCP was inflexible due to the need to maintain its image of policy success, citizens got hurt, and people were angry and frustrated. As a result, they protested to have their voices heard.
Throughout modern history (post-1912) of China, in my opinion, there were only two mass protests, one was known as the May Fourth Movement (around the 1920s), and the other one was the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989 (commonly known as the June Fourth Incident or the Tank Man Incident). The anti-quarantine protest towards the end of 2022 was the third mass-organized protest, more than 30 years after the protest in ‘89.
What does the series of protests mean for CCP’s political discourse and narrative?
After the mass movement, citizens were censored on Chinese social media, but the movement was picked up by foreign journalists in China, and many videos were posted on Twitter and other social media. To avoid censorship, Chinese citizens used a piece of blank white paper as the symbol for the protests and for the advocacy for political freedom in China.
Despite the censorship and the arrest of some protesters, local authorities still allowed people to gather and protest, the key feature being nonviolent. Traditionally, these protests would have been squandered by authorities immediately, so this, in my opinion, is a good sign of the CCP being more tolerant and open to public opinion, a feature that rarely exists in authoritarian regimes.
After protests erupted across China, the CCP relaxed key restrictions in the directives of the zero-COVID policy. This could mean two things: 1) the political elites in China realized they needed to allow for some civil advocacy to maintain stability within the regime, and 2) the political elites could use this as an example to dispute any accusation that the CCP has zero tolerance for protests.
Either way, Xi and other political leaders in China could use this as a case for some degree of political tolerance, changing the traditional political discourse of the party to a more progressive one. Perhaps, the CCP realizes that it needs to let the public have a voice, to hear that voice, and make policy changes accordingly if it wishes to hold on to its legitimacy for the foreseeable future.