China’s protests are a warning to Xi Jinping from the youth

Frustration and grievances over China’s zero-COVID policy have sparked major protests in more than a dozen cities, on a scale unseen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

These youth-led social protests include open calls for change not only in COVID-19 policies, but also in governance and politics. The big message of the scenes coming out of China: The suppression of policy debates in an increasingly centralized bureaucracy can ignite social unrest overnight despite intensified censorship and security enforcement.

At present, the Chinese Community Party has responded by easing some virus restrictions despite the high number of daily cases, indicating softened positions in the face of increasing protests.

But the most important test for President Xi Jinping lies ahead: What has he really learned from the outburst of anger in China’s streets, universities and factories?

Other politics

After the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, provoked by the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang, the ruling CCP drew lessons from the incident by adopting a model of collective leadership that was more open to policy debates in government and society.

The Chinese leaders that followed, including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, moved away from strong men’s politics towards a power-sharing model at the top. More generally, the CCP underwent a profound shift—what has been labeled “reinstitutionalization”—under the leadership of such senior leaders as Zeng Qinghong (China’s vice president under Hu Jintao), Li Yuanchao (vice president during the early years of Xi’s rule ), and political theorist Wang Huning.

This move toward a semblance of internal party democracy stimulated policy debates at various levels and initiated a process of decentralization that enabled local officials to promote economic development. Some observers described the process as an example of the CCP’s “authoritarian resilience,” where a single leader could not dominate policy-making in all areas and had to share power with other colleagues in the Politburo and its Standing Committee—the top organs of the side. .

The political game was transformed from the conventional winner-takes-all model to a balance-of-power model, in which all members of the Politburo Standing Committee were given nearly equal political authority, resulting in increased power-sharing and high-level checks and balances. The authoritarian nature of the regime was reduced by fragmented policy enforcement, relatively subdued censorship, and abundant policy debate.

Xi changed the game in 2012, when he replaced Hu Jintao as the CCP’s general secretary and began a process of “recentralization” that consolidated his power as the party’s core leader.

Faced with a disaffected society plagued by yawning income inequality and corruption, Xi borrowed from Mao Zedong’s tactical playbook and urged officials and military officers to reconnect with the common people – all the while tightening the boundaries for discussions about ideas such as democracy and freedom of expression.

With the ruling party’s tightening control over the media and rectification of ideology, opinion leaders in China seem more cautious than before in expressing differing views on public policy or human rights. This has stalled the movement towards more robust policy debates within the CCP under Jiang and Hu. The result: increased risks of policy blunders, because there are fewer checks and balances.

Lessons from the protests

China’s early success in curbing the spread of the coronavirus has been praised at home and abroad, but the economic and social costs of its draconian zero-COVID policy have become increasingly unbearable.

Anger at the seemingly never-ending chain of lockdowns has spread like wildfire and public discontent over travel restrictions has reached boiling point.

Throughout the year, people have expressed frustration with access to medical care and complained of difficulties buying food because delivery services have been overworked. Some reported poor conditions in quarantine centers and questioned why those who tested positive should be confined to these facilities even if they were asymptomatic. Others have expressed anger at the policy of separating COVID-positive babies and young children from their parents.

The recent protests suggest that all these feelings are now converging. These are the first nationwide demonstrations in decades, involving university students, small business owners and ordinary Chinese citizens. It was caused by a fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which killed 10 people who were reportedly in a locked building.

This also followed a recent accident in Guizhou province that killed 27 bus passengers en route to a quarantine facility. The government should have heeded the zero COVID fatigue and grievances. But that would only have been possible if policymakers responded more quickly to social media complaints and consulted more with public health professionals and social groups.

Tightened censorship in a year of transition of power — the CCP held its 20th party congress in October — has dulled officials’ sensitivity to society’s seething anger over prolonged lockdowns and testing.

After massive protests against COVID-19 restrictions in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States, Chinese authorities should have been aware of the risks associated with strict quarantine and lockdown measures. However, due to intensified censorship and surveillance, no serious debates on COVID-19 policy were held in the public domain.

If Xi wants more proof of the dangers of the path he’s taken, he need look no further than the aftermath of Jiang’s recent death. Many Chinese mourn the former CCP chief and Chinese president. Jiang was not Hu Yaobang – in fact, he came to power in the wake of the ruthless crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. Yet he is seen by many as a representative of a bygone era when China was seen as relatively freer and more tolerant of differing opinions.

It should be clear to Chinese leaders by now that it is unrealistic to hope to completely eradicate COVID-19 through lockdowns and repeated testing, given the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant and the high number of asymptomatic cases.

The recent protests themselves have not eroded Xi’s political authority, but unless it adapts, the government could face growing political backlash against its COVID-19 policies. There’s a broader lesson here, too: The public outcry of anger has sent a clear signal to leaders that public policy debates — where a range of viewpoints are allowed — are vital to understanding the pulse of the masses. It is a motto that Xi himself has emphasized many times. Now he knows the risks of not putting those words into action.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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