Hubris meets reality at China’s weakest moment
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
The protests across China may have been triggered by the harsh lockdowns over a Covid-19 surge but they quickly snowballed into something more fundamental and unprecedented—anti-Xi Jinping and anti-Communist Party demonstrations. The surge in new Covid cases in China makes it harder for Xi to maintain his zero-tolerance approach to Covid.
The protesters in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere bravely chanted slogans like “Xi Jinping, leave, leave” and “Communist Party, out, out”, suggesting a groundswell of popular support for reversing the state’s increasing repression. It also serves as evidence (if any evidence were needed) that the Xi-led communist regime retains power not through popular backing but through brute force.
The protesters, mostly youths, gave vent to their demand for democracy and freedom. They also held blank sheets of paper, now a symbol of grassroots opposition to Xi’s increasingly repressive policies.
The spontaneous popular uprising against the Communist Party’s rule, which began barely a month after Xi crowned himself China’s new emperor by securing a ground-breaking third term as the country’s president, has left the regime utterly shaken. In October, with the last checks and balances gone and the powerful Politburo Standing Committee stacked with his acolytes, Xi reigned supreme and unchallenged—and without any heir apparent. But thanks to the youth-led revolt, Xi’s hubris has met a harsh reality.
Even as the regime’s crackdown on the marchers continues, the protests represent a watershed moment for China at a time when its economic slowdown is deepening and unfavourable views of the country, according to a global survey, are at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.
Instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi’s regime had been doubling down on its draconian steps at home and renegade actions internationally. Then came the reality check in the form of protests by students and other youths, including in the capital city.
The fact is that the human rights situation in China under Xi has worsened, with the dictator establishing a techno-authoritarian state whose soaring budget for internal security, according to Beijing’s own figures, has overtaken the country’s massive military budget (the second largest in the world after that of the US). An increasingly repressive internal machinery, aided by an Orwellian surveillance system, keeps a close watch on citizens.
What is notable is that the anti-regime protests flared despite China’s emergence under Xi’s leadership as a technology-driven surveillance state.
Xi has also encouraged, including through demographic change and harsh policing, a state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands, which China annexed after coming under communist rule in 1949. In the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period, more than a million Muslims are today languishing in Xi’s Xinjiang gulag. Yet his regime has incurred no international costs.
A NEW DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT, AFTER 1989?
Pro-democracy protests in China cannot last long. After all, this is the world’s most extensive surveillance and police state. Xi’s regime is already systematically stamping out the latest protests as they threaten the very continuation of Communist Party rule.
Just as the 1989 pro-democracy movement was crushed brutally, the latest uprising is being quashed with full force.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of at least 10,000 people, a figure revealed in British declassified documents, remains a dark and hidden chapter in China’s narrative of its communist rule. The tank and machine-gun assault on student-led demonstrators underscored the Communist Party’s long record of exercising brute power against the country’s own citizens.
In a night of carnage on June 3-4, 1989, the pro-democracy protests were ruthlessly crushed, defying the democratisation push in the East Bloc. That push led to the fall of the Berlin Wall just five months after the Tiananmen crackdown, heralding the end of the Cold War. Yet the West recoiled from sustaining post-Tiananmen sanctions against Beijing, thereby paving the way for China’s dramatic rise subsequently.
The West not only glossed over the Tiananmen massacre but also ignored China’s subsequent excesses and unfair trade practices. As US president, Donald Trump explained how America aided China’s rise, thereby spawning a “monster”: “They [China] took advantage of us for many, many years. And I blame us, I don’t blame them. I don’t blame President Xi [Jinping]. I blame all of our presidents, and not just President [Barack] Obama. You go back a long way. You look at President [Bill] Clinton, [George W] Bush—everybody; they allowed this to happen, they created a monster.”
The protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were inspired by the watershed May 4, 1919 student demonstrations at the same site against Western colonialism. Xi, in a speech marking the centenary of the event, extolled the 1919 revolt, only to face a revolt against his own rule in 2022.
The 1919, 1989 and 2022 protests have had one thing in common—they were student-led. The Tiananmen massacre, for its part, served as a reminder that the Communist Party since its inception has relied on brute might, including seizing power by force. During the rule of its founder, Mao Zedong, tens of millions died in the so-called Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and other state-induced disasters.
According to international estimates, Adolf Hitler was responsible for 11 to 12 million deaths and Joseph Stalin for at least six million but Mao for some 42.5 million, making him the undisputed champion butcher of the 20th century. Mao’s blood-soaked era influenced his successor, Deng Xiaoping, to order the savage assault on Tiananmen demonstrators. Deng’s economic reforms unleashed an epochal transformation of his country. But his failure to truly liberalise China has left a troubled legacy for the Chinese, as underlined by the latest protests.
Participating in any protest in China takes much courage as it comes with great personal risk. After all, China has a record of imposing severe punishment on protesters, including handing them long jail sentences.
In the latest protests, many have been arrested by police. The Communist Party will use the country’s surveillance systems, including facial-recognition technology, to identify more participating protesters.
Hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras line the streets in Chinese cities. The regime in the last couple of years has also enhanced the capability of police to track movements of citizens by accessing their detailed mobile phone data, which reveals the locations of people at a given time.
In this light, many more protesters will be arrested in the coming days and weeks. Some will simply disappear.
Yet the protesters have already sent Xi a clear message—that his increasing authoritarianism will not go unchallenged.
Like any other dictator, Xi looked unshakable until simmering discontent at the grassroots levels triggered open protests over his record in power. The ripple effect from the protests could have ominous implications for the future of Xi’s regime.
THE VIRUS COMES BACK TO HAUNT XI
There is a striking irony to the lockdown-triggered protests, given that China is the birthplace of the Covid-19 pandemic. The surge of Covid cases has come late to China, in part because of almost three years of lockdowns and social control. The lockdowns meant that the Chinese public has had far less exposure to the Covid-19 virus, and thus less natural immunity, than people in most other countries.
But today such is the surge of new Covid cases in China that the southern city of Guangzhou has built new quarantine facilities and hospital beds for a quarter million people. The surge has made lockdowns in Chinese cities only stricter and longer, without the citizens having any say. By enforcing the world’s most restrictive Covid policies, Xi’s regime helped fuel public anger and frustration.
Even as the regime’s crackdown on the marchers continues, the protests represent a watershed moment for China at a time when its economic slowdown is deepening and unfavourable views of the country are at or near historic highs in most advanced economies. Instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi’s regime had been doubling down on its draconian steps at home and renegade actions internationally
There is a double irony here: Xi’s regime has refused to come clean on the Covid-19 virus’ origins, but now the virus has come back to haunt him in the form of popular protests against his harsh Covid policies.
Uncovering how the virus originated has become imperative to forestall the fourth coronavirus pandemic of the 21st century after SARS, MERS and Covid-19. By continuing to cover up the truth on how the virus emerged, Xi’s regime disrespects the memory of the more than 6.5 million people who have died globally thus far due to Covid-19. The only probe Beijing has allowed was a 2021 “joint study” with the World Health Organization (WHO) that it controlled and steered.
As a result, the world still does not know whether the pandemic began as a natural spill-over from wildlife or was triggered by the escape of a genetically engineered coronavirus from a lab in Wuhan, the centre of Chinese research on super-viruses. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of Covid-19 and hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, resulting in a local outbreak morphing into a global health calamity.
Understanding the Covid-19 virus’ origins is vital for another reason—this is not the first made-in-China pandemic. China was the source, as Chinese scientists have acknowledged, of the 2002-04 SARS, 1977 “Russian flu”, the 1968 “Hong Kong flu”, and the 1957 “Asian flu”. Long before Covid-19, a virus from a Chinese lab escaped, resulting in the SARS outbreak in Beijing.
Xi’s regime has frustrated all efforts, including by WHO, to conduct an independent forensic inquiry into the Wuhan labs, labelling such an audit “origin-tracing terrorism”. The only concession Xi has made is that in September 2021, after the pandemic had already devastated much of the world, he ordered enhanced oversight of Chinese labs handling lethal viruses.
To be sure, the virus’ origins remain hidden also due to Western links to China’s French-designed Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), especially US funding of bat coronavirus research there. A January 2021 US State Department factsheet expressed concern over “whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV”, which had been researching ways to increase the transmissivity of bat coronaviruses to human cells.
The US government has yet to disclose the full extent of its WIV funding, including whether any Pentagon funds ended up in Wuhan. Nor has any explanation been offered why US government agencies, from the National Institutes of Health to USAID, were funding research at the WIV which, according to the State Department’s own admission, was linked to the Chinese military.
At home, Xi, in response to the major protests, will likely begin in the coming weeks to slowly ease his zero-Covid policy. But make no mistake: Xi’s cover-up of the virus’ origins will persist.
CHINA AT A CROSSROADS
Communist China is the longest-surviving autocracy in modern history, surpassing the Soviet Union’s 69-year record. Yet the world’s largest, strongest, wealthiest and technologically most advanced autocracy is entering an era of uncertainty, especially as its deepening economic slowdown undermines the Communist Party’s high-economic-growth rationale to monopolise power.
What is remarkable is that the Communist Party, despite its long record of gory excesses, remains ensconced in power, bending reality to its propaganda and blocking open dissent. But how long can the world’s oldest autocracy continue to elude the forces of history? Xi, by dispensing with collective leadership and orderly succession, has already undercut the institutionalism which made post-Mao authoritarianism resilient to the forces of change that helped unravel the Soviet empire.
It is no less remarkable that ‘butcher’ Mao remains a real-life demigod in Chinese eyes, thus preventing Chinese scrutiny of the human costs exacted by the disasters under his leadership, including the “Great Leap Forward”, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”, and the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. Mao’s giant portrait still peers down Beijing’s Tiananmen Square where his successors gunned down hundreds of people to save Chinese communism in 1989 at a time when besieged Leninist regimes elsewhere in the world were crumbling.
Looking ahead, if the Chinese communists are to hold on to power, they have to continue to shield the world’s largest population from truth. This why China’s internet and media censorship, including of social media, is the most stringent in the world.
An impoverished, backward nation in 1949, China has risen dramatically and now commands respect and awe in the world. But despite China’s transformative economic change since the Mao era, the iron underpinnings of a repressive one-party state not only remain intact but have also become stouter.
Uncovering how the virus originated has become imperative to forestall the fourth coronavirus pandemic of the 21st century after SARS, MERS and Covid-19. By continuing to cover up the truth, Xi’s regime disrespects the memory of the more than 6.5 million people who have died globally thus far due to Covid-19
Furthermore, China’s economic rise at dizzying speed has helped obscure the unsustainable nature of its development model. In a rare admission by a Chinese leader, then-Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged in 2007 that China’s development model was “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable”, owing not least to its deleterious ecological impact. The present economic slowdown is refocusing attention on China’s economic model.
More fundamentally, the Chinese Communist Party never abandoned its heavy reliance on raw power since the Mao era. In fact, no sooner had Deng Xiaoping embarked on reshaping China’s economic trajectory than he set out to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam. The February-March 1979 military attack on Vietnam occurred just days after Deng—the “nasty little man” as Henry Kissinger once called him—became the first Chinese communist leader to visit Washington. A decade later, Deng brutally crushed the student-led, pro-democracy movement at home.
Today, the international factors that aided China’s rise are eroding. Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), now faces increasingly strong headwinds, with international spotlight on Beijing’s colonial-style lending practices intensifying. China’s creditor imperialism often ensnares borrowing countries in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.
There is also a pushback against China’s influence operations in democratic countries, including the Trojan horse of Confucian Institutes at foreign universities.
Against this background, it is becoming more difficult for Xi’s regime to continue abusing free-trade rules or to hide behind the argument that China remains a developing economy and thus is entitled to favourable treatment, including on international rules and norms. The changing international environment holds important implications for China domestically, including the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
As the latest protests underscore, the party’s concerns about social unrest and maintenance of order are deepening. The party is in no position to fully address these concerns, despite its overriding focus on domestic order, including boosting the budget for internal security to the extent that it has eclipsed China’s official military spending.
Add to the picture the new international pressures that accentuate the party’s domestic challenges on stability and order. It is thus no wonder that the party fears it could meet the Soviet Communist Party’s fate, leading Xi to repeatedly emphasise the importance of enforcing strict Leninist discipline.
Here’s the paradox: China’s export-driven economic growth model means it cannot turn its back on globalisation. But the more China globalises while trying to simultaneously insulate itself from liberalising influences, the more vulnerable it becomes to unforeseen political ‘shocks’ at home. The latest protests are a reminder that Xi’s own actions threaten to undermine communist rule, including by building a cult of personality around his one-man reign and by inviting an international pushback through the aggressive pursuit of expansionist policies.