Chinese people fed up with China’s zero-Covid regime

The Chinese Communist Party’s preference for coercion has now facilitated a crisis of its own creation, one that could be difficult to control.

The spark that set China ablaze came last Friday from Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where Beijing is waging a genocidal campaign against Uyghurs and other minorities and implementing the country’s broader “zero-Covid” restrictions with particular zeal. Despite relatively low case counts compared with a new wave of infections in other parts of China, the authorities have maintained stringent lockdowns. On Friday, a fire in a Uyghur-majority neighborhood killed at least ten people. Locals reportedly said that apartment doors were locked, pursuant to Covid restrictions. Fire trucks mounted a helpless response from a distance, Radio Free Asia reports, as barriers intended to blockade people into their buildings prevented responders from getting to the scene. The fire raged for three hours.

Frustration with Beijing’s draconian zero-Covid policy has grown for months, but this incident has set off a wave of demonstrations that started in Ürümqi and has since spread to major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. Brave protesters are now variously squaring off against police in the streets and holding up blank sheets of paper as a signal of their dissent.

There are some essential mistakes that have prevented China from joining the rest of the world in reopening. A failure to fully vaccinate the elderly population has left China’s most vulnerable population at high risk of death from the mass infections that would result from an easing of virus-era restrictions when almost all Chinese have no natural immunity. Just as importantly, the Chinese government has failed to authorize the use of Western mRNA vaccines, which are more effective than the Chinese alternative. Beijing did not want to hand the U.S. and its allies the diplomatic victory of having developed a singularly life-saving invention.

The Party’s pride, and persistent efforts to undercut a foreign medical miracle, teed up a political disaster of its own making.

The Xi era has not yet seen demonstrations at this scale, simultaneously in various cities across China, and the Party seems to have been caught, at least initially, on its back foot. All of this is taking place a mere month after Xi’s ascension to new heights of apparently unchallenged power within the Party hierarchy during last month’s Party Congress, where he took the occasion to double down on zero-Covid. Reversing too abruptly on that now would be an unacceptable display of weakness.

That said, the protest movement is still in its infancy, and the Chinese regime’s grip on power is obviously formidable. While some of the demonstrations have featured calls for Xi to step down, the focus has, thus far, been largely limited to zero-Covid. These protests have not generally seen widespread calls for democratization, nor have they featured other demands that exceed the scope of the virus restrictions. That doesn’t mean, however, that other grievances won’t also grow in importance.

China’s leaders are clamping down on the movement before it spirals into something more dangerous. So far, the situation has not reached anything close to the level of a Tiananmen-style threat to the Party’s power, which featured persistent, large-scale protests together with a split at the leadership level. Nonetheless, police are ramping up their arrests of demonstrators, this weekend even detaining and allegedly beating a reporter for the BBC, who had been covering a protest in Shanghai. University students have been temporarily sent home, in a transparent bid to neuter historical hotbeds of political dissent. If these basic tactics fail, however, the Chinese leadership could once again engage in mass killings.

For its part, the Biden administration has reacted cautiously, declining to comment on the Ürümqi fire and the protest movement until Monday morning. Even then, the White House issued a statement tepidly critiquing Beijing’s zero-Covid measures as ineffective and stating that the administration supports the right of people everywhere to demonstrate, including in China. The statement glossed over the sheer human suffering that those policies have caused, and the ingenuity and bravery of the protesters seeking a reprieve from Beijing’s Covid techno-tyranny.

Undoubtedly, President Biden and his aides are hesitant to speak out too forthrightly, for fear of feeding into Party propaganda that portrays foreign forces as the main drivers of the protests. Too strong a response might also disrupt the ill-considered détente that Biden is currently seeking with Xi in the aftermath of their recent in-person meeting in Bali. But Chinese officials will blame America regardless of what the president says, and what the demonstrators need most right now is international backing and visibility. Xi and other Party leaders know what all dictators intuitively understand — it’s easier to perpetrate atrocities when the cameras aren’t rolling.

No one knows just how far these protests will spread, but the demonstrators deserve our support. Whatever happens next, we must send a clear message to Beijing: The world is watching.

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