If China's dictator Xi Jinping had thought he could begin his third term with firm control of the nation, he is facing a rude awakening. Protests against his cruelty-enforced "zero Covid" policy erupted in several Chinese cities last week and have now spread nationwide, with some protestors openly demanding Xi resign.
The canary in the coal mine was a fire in a high-rise apartment in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and home to millions of Uyghur Muslims and minorities, killing at least ten people and injuring nine. Many people blamed the barriers erected by the local authorities to confine residents inside the apartment, which hindered residents' escape and fire-fighters' rescue efforts, leading to unnecessary deaths. Heartbreaking videos of fire victims desperately crying for help went viral on China's social media before censors took them down.
The Chinese public was outraged by what they saw and couldn't help wondering if a similar tragedy would happen to them and their loved ones. After all, it is common practice for local authorities to seal the front entrance of an entire apartment building or use metal barriers to confine residents inside their homes.
Most Chinese initially supported Beijing's "Zero Covid" policy, believing that lockdowns, daily mass PCR testing, and mandatory quarantines were necessary to keep Covid infections under control. Xi Jinping declared China had won the "people's war" against Covid in March 2020 and claimed the victory as irrefutable evidence of the superiority of China's political system.
Yet, the government's policy failed as China continues to experience Covid outbreaks due to more infectious Covid-19 variants. Since last fall, the Chinese government has imposed lockdowns on 46 cities and 343 million residents. But as recently as last week, China reported another record number of Covid infections. Yet, the more Xi's "zero Covid" policy appears to be failing, the more his underlings have tried to enforce it with a degree of cruelty and zealousness, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). For instance, in Xi'an, an eight-month pregnant woman lost her baby after local hospitals refused to treat her because her Covid test was too long.
The lockdowns in Shanghai have drawn much domestic and international attention because Shanghai is China's most prosperous city. Yet, during the lockdowns, residents reported widespread hunger. Individuals with chronic illnesses or medical emergencies missed treatment, and some died. Adults were taken from their homes and forced to spend weeks in poorly run mass quarantine camps, and young children were taken away from their parents. Even the most obedient Chinese citizens began to ask questions such as "When will this misery end?"
Besides causing human suffering, Xi’s "Zero Covid" policy has hurt China’s economy. Analysts cut China’s GDP forecast for 2022 to 2.8%, much lower than Beijing’s official target of 5.5 percent. The unemployment rate for young Chinese aged 16 to 24 reached almost 18 percent. Yet, Xi worsened China’s economic woes by cracking down on private businesses, which had been the engine of China’s three-decade economic growth. His heavy-handed approach has caused a real estate crisis in China, which impaired consumer confidence since most Chinese households’ wealth is tied to the property market.
Chinese citizens also became alarmed when authorities in Zhengzhou, a city in central China, reportedly used a health code system designed for Covid-19 surveillance to prevent depositors of local banks from staging a protest outside the bank that froze their deposits. Many Chinese regarded this incident as a confirmation that the Chinese government has turned the Covid health code into another surveillance tool.
Any hope of Xi easing his "Zero Covid" restrictions evaporated after the Communist Party's 20th Congress in October. Xi double-downed his commitment to the "Zero Covid" policy by elevating Li Qiang, the Communist Party secretary of Shanghai who was responsible for Shanghai's catastrophic lockdowns, to the second most powerful position in the nation. Li's promotion signals that Xi's "Zero Covid" policy is here to stay. The party congress also marked the beginning of Xi's breaking the two-five-year term limit of his position as the head of the state and set to rule China for the rest of his life like an emperor.
Xi must have thought his rule would be secure after spending the last decades consolidating power, eliminating political challengers, and cracking down on dissents. But he misread the public mood. There is an unwritten social contract between the CCP and the Chinese people, in which the Chinese people accepted less political freedom in exchange for rising standards of living, employment, and economic growth. But Xi's ruinous "Zero Covid" policy and its devastating tolls on people's lives and the economy are now seen by many as a breach of the social contract.
The fire incident in Urumqi has sparked nationwide protests, including in China's capital Beijing, and financial harbor, Shanghai. Many protesters were seen holding blank paper as a way to object to the government's censorship. Some shouted slogans such as "Xi Jinping, step down!" and "We want freedom and democracy, no more lockdowns." China hasn't seen such large-scale protests and bold slogans against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square because the CCP has a long history of violently suppressing dissent. But now it seems that the Chinese people are so desperate for change that they are not afraid anymore.
Xi likely will respond to this widespread unrest with brutal force and remain in power. Still, this crisis demonstrates that his rule is not as secure as he had believed. History is sometimes full of irony. Xi values personal loyalty and social stability more than anything. But his insistence on forging ahead with a failed policy to deal with a virus that originated from China and likely escaped from a government-funded lab may eventually cost him loyalty and social stability, becoming the beginning of his own undoing.