Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Protests in China | Is the Zero-COVID strategy backfiring on the government?

Protests in China | Is the Zero-COVID strategy backfiring on the government? 
Worldview with Suhasini Haidar

In this episode of Worldview, we look at what’s driving recent protests in China, is there more to the unrest than the government’s Zero-Covid policy

December 02, 2022 09:30 pm | Updated 09:30 pm IST

Just weeks after what seemed to be a grand celebration of the Chinese Communist party’s achievements, came protests in several Chinese cities and many college campuses, calling for an end to the government’s Zero- Covid restrictions, to brutal lockdowns and crackdowns, and even some calling for Xi Jinping to step down. Finally, in what seemed to be a softening of tone, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan chaired a meeting where she indicated covid protocols could now be reviewed.

These protests have been building inside – ever since China’s government put in place what it calls a “zero covid” policy. Remember most of the world has made its mistakes but 3 years since the virus was first detected – it has moved out of the pandemic through using different means, including:

1. Initial lockdowns- that then stopped after a year

2. Universal vaccinations- 2 doses and a booster

3. Stepped up testing- particularly at airports and checking incoming passengers

4. Letting natural immunity kick in

However, the Chinese Communist Party has chosen a different path- of attempting Zero Covid strategy that means to “reduce virus transmission to near-zero levels and ultimately eliminate the virus within a specified geographic region”

1. Frequent lockdowns till today

2. Quarantines for buildings, localities, cities if even one case is found

3. Mass testing, mandatory testing, and monitoring of testing through health apps

4. All shops and businesses in area where there are cases to be shut down

5. Mandatory quaranting centres for those testing positive

6. Prioritising younger people for vaccines

Chinese authorities defended the policies by saying that China has much fewer deaths than the rest of the world, especially given China has the world’s largest population. According to WHO, while the world has had 639 million cases of Covid with 6.6 million deaths, China accounted for just 9 million cases and 30,000 deaths. Of course these are reported figures, so in some doubt.

Even so, the protests, that seemed to come after a number of different incidents and of people tiring of the daily restrictions.

In September 27 people on a quarantine bus were killed in an accident on their way to a quarantine centre in South West Guizhou

In November, the cases of a 3-year-old boy who died in Lanzhou and a woman in Xian who miscarried due to covid restrictions caught the national attention

We also saw near riots at the Foxconn factory for iPhone parts in Zhengzhou and an IKEA store in Shanghai- all of which went viral on social media

And then last week there was an apartment fire in Urumqi, that was under a 100 day lockdown, that killed 10 including children after emergency workers were delayed by covid restrictions. As word spread of the horrible incident, social media, weibo carried images that sparked protests in nearly a dozen cities

How did other countries react?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and World Bank chief Kristalina Georgieva, called for China to recaliberate policies

Speaking to Indian channel WION, MoS MEA Meenakshi Lekhi said, “No views, those are fir the world to see and those are for the country to control within.

Earlier I spoke to my colleague Ananth Krishnan in Beijing, who has been himself dealing with the restrictive policies, about what he saw right there in the Chinese capital:

Q / Just a few weeks ago, President Xi Jinping and the CCP seemed to be on a high at the party congress- how did these protests erupt so suddenly?

A / It does seem sudden in fact there were frustrations building up over the last year, which is the third Zero-Covid policy in China. There were lot of expectations among people that after the Party Congress there will be easing up. So people were somewhat patient hoping for that to happen. But the fact that even after Congress there are waves of cases and harsher restrictions deflated people’s expectations. So though protests seem sudden it has been building up three years of very difficult restrictions under which people of China have been living. Of course exacting a big economic and social toll as well because of the policy.

Q / How bad were the Zero covid restrictions- give us your own experience. And has the government promised to relax them due to the protests?

A / Well, the biggest problem, I think, for a lot of people with Zero-Covid restrictions was the uncertainty. If there is a single case of Covid in your compound, you can be taken away to quarantine if you’re deemed close contact. And of course, if you test positive as well, you will be taken forcibly to central quarantine, there’s a mass testing regime that a lot of people have gotten increasingly frustrated with. Here in Beijing, for example, I have to take a test every 48 hours now to enter a building a public building, a hospital, a shopping mall. And these tests are done in government centers, you can’t self-administer them. So people line up for sometimes quite a long time. And of course, now it’s really cold in Beijing lining up in the winter cold, take a test, and you need the result on your Beijing health app. And only with that a QR code essentially governs your life in China. And I think a lot of people are frustrated with this entire sort of toll that it takes. I think that there are also huge economic reasons because of markdown, there’s so much unpredictability, it’s been terrible for companies that want to hire, unemployment, especially among young people. It was 20% a few months ago. And I think that this is a whole economic depression, because of the weight of these restrictions. And not to mention the daily frustration of having your life governed by a QR code. And knowing that at any moment, there could be a phone call and you can be taken to quarantine. So that’s the kind of atmosphere that people have been living under. Because of Zero-Covid We should say that it was tolerated by people and welcomed in the first year of the pandemic because Zero-Covid helped China avoid mass deaths. China, by far has the least deaths of any major country. And so people were welcoming it as it meant normalcy in China and 2020 and 2021. Schools will open there was no bad second wave. But I think what has changed is, with the new variants that are milder but more transmissible, to keep them in check. Zero-Covid has had to become harsher and harsher lockdown than you’ve seen in Shanghai earlier this year or two months. And so people feel with the virus changing and evolving. It’s time for China’s policies to evolve and change too. And I think that is the public expectation right now.

Q / Protests across China have taken many forms, including people holding up empty pieces of paper- is this only about Zero- Covid policy or the larger economic scenario?

A / Certainly the driving force for this protest is frustration of the lockdowns. The immediate trigger was the recent fire in the city of Urumqi in western China where atleast 10 people died and the response was widely seen as being delayed by lockdown measures. It is something that really struck a chord with the people as it can happen to anyone in China. They have seen what happens when your compounds are lockdowned, exits are barred. It could happen to anyone here. That’s what really made this tragedy resonate with so many people. I would say that frustration over lockdowns coupled with the fact that there is economic depression in China because of these measures. The driving force of these protests in college campuses. More than 50 college campuses have seen protests. In some of these protests, calls have gone beyond the economic concerns or beyond lockdown concerns to actually call for democracy, freedom of speech, free press. It remains to be seen whether these calls would get broader traction. The way I see it is that the main driving force is indeed frustration with the lockdowns. If the Chinese leadership announce major easing of the lockdowns, then I think they would be addressing major grievances of the protestors.

Q / Jiang Zemin, seen as the leader who took China’s economy to new heights has died- how much could his death be a rallying point for more protests? How is he being remembered in China?

A / The passing away of has come at such an extraordinary political time in China. People are immediately thinking of parallels to ‘89 when the death of another former leader galvanized student movement. Of course, they are very different

Tianenman square protests took place in the wake of the death of pro-reform leader Hu Yaobang- ended after two months in June 1989 after police cracked down on thousands of protestors in Beijing. The brutality shocked the world. Like then, this week’s protests are also about the state of the economy and daily hardships.

China’s economic slowdown due to Covid is now well documented:

- GDP is expected to be down to 3.22%

- Investment grew just 0.3 per cent

- consumption shrank 0.8 per cent,

- while exports expanded just 1 per cent, according to latest surveys

- this July, the youth jobless rate, for the 16-24 age group, rose to 19.9% the highest figure since the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) began publishing monthly data in 2018. 

- In addition, a property market slump is driving other indicators down

- And covid related disruptions are affecting both Chinese supply chains, as well as its exports to countries including India.

Clearly, the economic signals that may have sparked the protests across China are more a concern for the Xi Jinping government, than the protests over Covid regulations that could be controlled over the weekend, and will, like the demonstrations in India and other parts of the world, peter out once the restrictions are removed. However, as he starts his third term in office and as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping has been warned that the greatest challenge to his leadership may come, not from inner party politics, but the people’s reaction to his policies.

READING RECOMMENDATIONS: 

1. CHINA AND COVID-19: Domestic & External Dimensions, a book of essays by Indian scholars, Edited by Srikanth Kondapalli

2. Policing China: Street-Level Cops in the Shadow of Protest by Suzanne E. Scoggin

s3. The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats – and Our Response – Will Change the World by Ian Bremmer, with a fairly detailed chapter on Covid and China

4. Tiananmen Square : The Making of a Protest Paperback – by Vijay Gokhale

5. Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World Hardcover – by Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges

6. China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now by David Shambaugh- looks at the terms of Mao, Denk, Jiang, Hu and Xi.

7. A more exhaustive biography of Jiang Zemin from 2005 is The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin – by Robert Lawrence Kuhn

8. The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human – by Naomi Wolf

9. Made in China: Wuhan, Covid and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy by journalist Jasper Becker, earlier the author of The Chinese

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