Barely a month has passed since Xi Jinping became a kind of perpetual leader going into an unprecedented third term as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, but he is already facing a new challenge in the form of rising public anger against the “Covid Zero” policy.
Protests have been all too rare in President Xi’s 10 years as his autocratic regime had eliminated most means of organising them with social media heavily censored and human rights groups banned. If China is still facing the most vocal of public protests since Tiananmen Square of 1989, the regime’s misplaced totality of belief in a rigid “Covid Zero” — towards containing mortality from a disease that may well have sprung from Wuhan and spreading globally — is to blame.
So repressed have the Chinese people been in the three years since the pandemic broke out, with millions locked up in homes suffering food shortages and loss of livelihoods and facing severe travel and other restrictions, that it was all bound to break out one day. A fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in which at least 10 people may have died because of the slow response of firefighters, who had to surmount Covid lockdown restrictions, was the trigger.
Protests spread to larger cities, starting with Shanghai from where British journalists were able to get news and authentic videos of events to the outside world. A BBC reporter may have felt the force of the despotic foot of the regime but that is a minor issue compared to what 1.40 bn people have been suffering under the yoke of an autocrat’s government.
The world experience with Covid ran along different lines, at least in 2021 and 2022 when immunity also spread in the community along with seroprevalence just as protective vaccines kicked in to help contain the disease and lower mortality. In not being able to save only 30,010 people from death by Covid between Jan. 3, 2020 and Nov. 25, 2022, China may have done astonishingly well in handling the mortality rate. But the billion-plus survivors had to undergo the worst of lockdowns in a totalitarian state that refused to learn lessons from the rest of the world.
China’s faith in its own vaccine programme, hurriedly rolled out without proper trials and proof of efficacy, and its trampling of the rights of its people in brutally pervasive Covid lockdown controls became the focus of anger. The wisdom of hindsight is indubitable, but those societies that sensed the futility of lockdowns on life, livelihoods and the economy fared better though they may have lost more people. The recovery from the pandemic in India, with a population close to China’s, pointed to common sense in opening up, which also allowed the economy to bounce back.
Xi’s record as an autocrat hardly suggests that he will bow to public sentiment even as Chinese censors have been moving quickly to scrub out the visibility of the protests from social media and the like. If he commands his considerable bureaucracy and machinery to stamp out the protests as a predecessor did in Tiananmen Square, he may feed more grist to the incipient theory that this is a significant crossroads in the career of Xi, China’s most powerful leader for decades. Xi now sits on the horns of a great dilemma. “Covid Zero” has brought China to this point of public protest. Where does it go from here?