China changes course

In the wake of angry demonstrations throughout China against strict Covid measures, which captured international press attention,  Duncan Bartlett considers the protests’ significance and their impact on policy

There was a patriotic soundtrack to the anti-Covid protests which took place in China in November 2022. People sang the national anthem and ‘The Internationale’, a socialist song associated with the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

During the demonstrations, which took place in at least ten cities, some people lit candles, while others chanted slogans or held up white pieces of paper, signifying the wordless expression of their discontent.

The ‘white paper’ protests, as they became known, generated global headlines, especially as they included calls for President Xi Jinping to step down – a daring move in China, where direct criticism of the government can lead to harsh penalties.

Xi himself said that the protests were a sign of frustration, following nearly three years of mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns.

These so-called ‘zero-Covid’ restrictions reduced human contact and led to severe economic disruption. ‘People compared the situation in China to other countries and saw that the Xi approach was unnecessarily restrictive and harmful,’ says Professor Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute.

The protests came to a halt after police arrested many of those involved and confiscated mobile phones.

‘Xi is trying to use intimidation, actual or implied, to deter people from protesting or organising themselves in such a way that may pose a challenge to the party state,’ says Professor Tsang. ‘He also has a backup, which is to use force.’

Yet the protests have had a definite impact, for in their wakecame surprising news: China announced it was largely ditching its zero-Covid policy.

Testing stations were dismantled, lockdowns were eased and patients were asked to self-isolate at home, rather than in quarantine centres. Nevertheless, by the end of 2022 China was still only using domestically-produced vaccines, rather than supplies from abroad.

anti-Covid demonstrator in China
SILENT PROTEST: An anti-Covid demonstrator in China

This could be a costly mistake, according to Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief of TheEconomist, who believes the result will be a surge in Covid cases. The Economist projects that infections may reach 45 million per day and that 680,000 people could die, even if vaccines are used. However, Ms Minton Beddoes suspects that the Chinese authorities will try to cover up the scale of sickness and death.

A crucial question for her centres around why the Chinese did not use the time they had when the virus was under control to stockpile vaccine supplies and provide third doses of Chinese-made vaccines to people. ‘I think the answer is that 2022 was all about the consolidation of power by Xi Jinping – that was clear from the 20th Party Congress. Nothing could detract from that,’she said in a briefing for her magazine’s subscribers.

And, she adds,‘No-one was prepared to question the edicts from on high. However, now the restraints have been relaxed, we could see a clash between the autocracy and a virus which doesn’t respect the rules.’

So were the protests a short-lived cry of frustration, or a signal of an imminent revolution? It is more likely to be the former, according to Ms Minton Beddoes, who concludes: ‘I would not assume that this is the beginning of the end of Xi Jinping.’

Willy Lam, a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Hong Kong, believes people’s concerns about Covid combined with their frustrations over the economy to fomenta mood of anger.

‘Despite Xi Jinping’s emphasis on common prosperity, the economic pie is not divided in an equitable fashion,’ Mr Lam told a seminar organised by the Financial Times. ‘China needs high growth for a proportion to trickle down and provide palpable improvements to the standards of living of those in disadvantaged sectors, such as migrant workers.’

The protests ended after police arrested many of those involved and confiscated mobile phones

In his view, fiscal stimulus programmes and loose monetary policy by the Central Bank are insufficient. ‘We need an end to the collusion between the clans of the Communist Party and the huge public conglomerates. Such a change would require reform of the constitutional and political system.’

For Yuan Yang, China Correspondent for the Financial Times, it was significant that the protests in November 2022 took place on the campuses of as many as 70 universities in mainland China, given that frustration over the cost of living is a key problem for young people and the unemployment rate among this demographic is running at around 20 per cent.

By the end of 2022 China was still only using domestically-produced vaccines

People line up at a nucleic acid testing site near a residential compound under lockdown in Chengdu
Covid testing stations have been dismantled

‘Unless graduates receive handsome salaries from tech companies such as Tencent or Alibaba, they cannot afford to buy homes in big cities,’ she says. ‘My friends in the UK complain about the difficulty of getting onto the housing ladder in London. However, it is much worse in Beijing and Shanghai.’

‘In the countryside, there are problems which are typical of developing countries: poor nutrition and limited access to healthcare,’ explains Ms Yang. ‘Yet in the big cities, there are issues with the property market which are similar to those faced by citizens of developed countries. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party lacks experience in this field. The key question is how flexible the government will be in responding to such challenges.’

An important test for China’s revised strategy comes in January and the period of the Lunar New Year. Pre-pandemic, the celebration would see as many as three billion trips made across China, in the world’s largest annual migration of people. Last year, due to the zero-Covid strategy, there were tight travel restrictions, especially as China was preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

A medical expert spoke to Asian Affairs on condition of anonymity.

‘Our particular concern for 2023 is the possibility that people who don’t have any Covid symptoms go back to their hometowns carrying the virus without realising they are doing so,’ said the expert.

‘The healthcare system in the rural areas is often pretty threadbare. There’s a real danger that the resurgent virus could spread rapidly, especially because we know it is at its most infectious during winter.’

Where this will leave the newly relaxed Covid policy, and what it may mean in the long term for China’s economy and the Xi administration, remain to be seen.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and the host of the weekly China In Context podcast

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