The Chinese people’s frustration with their government’s “zero COVID” policy has reached a boiling point. Starting on November 26, protests erupted across multiple cities, with people taking to the streets and demanding an end to harsh lockdowns. Many held up pieces of blank white paper, protesting wordlessly against censorship. A few others went beyond criticizing public health restrictions, taking aim at the authoritarian political system. “We don’t want COVID tests! We want freedom!” a group of demonstrators in Shanghai chanted, repeating words from an earlier lone protestor who unfurled a banner on a bridge in Beijing. It has been more than 30 years since China has seen simultaneous and spontaneous protests that cut across social groups, coupled with calls for freedom. The last time, of course, was during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which rattled China’s ruling elite to the core and ended in a bloody crackdown.

What will Beijing do next? Since the protests began, central health officials have signaled an easing of COVID-19 restrictions, and the cities of Guangzhou and Chongqing have relaxed their pandemic control measures almost overnight. At the same time, security forces have increased their presence across cities nationwide. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been conspicuously silent. In the absence of explicit orders from Xi, combined with an urgent need to calm the protests, these reactions from central technocrats and local authorities may be signs of improvisation rather than a plan.

The fog of uncertainty is thick, but there is no question that this is a momentous juncture in twenty-first-century Chinese history. This is perhaps the first time that Chinese citizens have rallied together to resist a national policy—and appeared, so far, to have made the authorities change course. Such an event could bring progress or doom, depending on whether the top leadership heeds or silences the voice of the people.

STUCK IN 2020

Since the development of effective vaccines, most countries have emerged from pandemic controls and returned to normal. China stands alone in its obsession with eliminating the virus. Beijing’s zero-COVID policy has been ruinous: damaging the economy, depleting local government finances, and provoking widespread anger against the regime. The only thing that Xi cares about more than the economy is security and social stability. So why has his leadership seemed to sabotage itself?

The instinct among Western analysts, accustomed to living in democratic societies where governments must account for their actions, is to search for rational explanations. The most common one is that the Chinese government fears that a surge of COVID-19 cases could overwhelm hospitals, especially given inadequate vaccination among the elderly. This rationale supports the party’s claim that “protecting lives is our top priority” (even though, in practice, harsh lockdowns have caused deaths from accidents, depression, and denied medical care). Other analysts cite public support for the zero-COVID policy in parts of China, where citizens believe state propaganda about the virus’s fearsome effects and China’s victory over the West when it comes to pandemic control.

Although these are valid explanations, they fail to get at the real reason why China has stuck to zero COVID: because Xi said so. Given that Xi is personally wedded to the policy, nobody in the bureaucracy, or possibly even among the political elites, has dared to call his command into question, even when it defied common sense. Under the collective leadership that defined China’s political system from Deng Xiaoping onward, the personal whims of the top leader would not have dominated national policy. But as Xi has successfully centralized power as much as Mao Zedong did, Xi has become the modern equivalent of an imperial emperor, but equipped with penetrating, high-tech state capacity. Under his command, the bureaucracy has become obsessed not so much with saving lives or eventually living with COVID-19 but rather with maintaining the leader’s holy number: “zero.”

During the early stages of the pandemic, there was good reason for Xi to prioritize stamping out outbreaks. At the time, the virus was novel and dangerous, and no vaccine was available. China’s strategy of mass testing, citywide lockdowns, and centralized quarantine in makeshift hospitals worked wonders, impressing even skeptics. It looked especially effective in contrast to chaotic mismanagement in the United States under President Donald Trump and in the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. According to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, as of June 2022, China had only one death per 100,000 people, compared with three hundred per 100,000 people in the United States. For Xi, China’s close-to-zero fatality numbers have been a rare and prized triumph, especially given the intense criticism directed at him when the virus first broke out. It simultaneously validated his claims about the superiority of China’s top-down political system over liberal democracy and gave him great pride in beating the West. 

Some citizens have realized that their suffering is the result of a senseless, needless policy.

As other countries learned to live with the virus, China’s leadership remained attached to zero COVID, channeling vast quantities of personnel and resources toward containment. This approach became increasingly obsolete, even absurd, with the emergence of the highly transmissible but milder Omicron variant. Ignoring this reality, local governments did not want any cases to emerge on their watch. Accordingly, their response has been to enforce relentless blanket lockdowns, spray disinfectants in the streets, and quarantine people who have been exposed but have no symptoms. The absurdity of these measures makes sense only when one understands that their true goal is not protecting public health but rather meeting a political target: keep the numbers at zero.

At the 20th Party Congress in October, Xi proclaimed, “We must resolutely stick to dynamic zero COVID without wavering.” Proving that these are not empty words, he promoted Li Qiang, who oversaw a grinding two-month lockdown in Shanghai, to the party’s number two position, even though that city’s lockdowns drew widespread complaints from residents and businesses. For officials, the message was clear: enforcing zero COVID brings rewards, regardless of its costs.

Initially, hopes were high that after the party congress, the leadership would loosen China’s COVID-19 controls. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed to appear on November 11, when the National Health Council (the government department responsible for health policy) issued a directive known as “the 20 measures.” The order included some specific instructions to loosen restrictions—for example, a reduction in the number of quarantine days required for inbound travelers and the right for people in high-risk areas to isolate at home instead of in centralized quarantine facilities. Investors interpreted this document as a sign of China’s imminent exit from the pandemic, and stock markets briefly rallied.

But the optimism proved premature. In fact, the new measures were not aimed at ending COVID-19 controls but rather at “refining” them. As the directive stated, “Refining pandemic control does not mean loosening control, letting go, or lying flat; rather, it means . . . improving the precision of control.” And it assigned officials a virtually impossible mission: “Prevent the virus from spreading, and, at the same time, stabilize the economy.” In effect, Beijing’s conflicting instructions shifted all the blame and responsibility onto local governments: if the virus spreads, it is their fault; if the economy suffers, it is also their fault. Confused, some cities loosened controls and tightened again, whereas others imposed more controls.

On November 25, a deadly residential fire broke out in the city of Urumqi, where rescue efforts were apparently delayed by barricades commonly used to block residents from leaving their homes during lockdowns. For many people in China, this was the last straw. “If it’s not me this time, it could be me next time,” one viral post on social media read. Outrage at this tragedy came in the midst of a grim economic situation: more than 460,000 businesses closed nationwide in the first quarter of 2022, and youth unemployment has reached nearly 20 percent. Meanwhile, many of those who caught the virus have learned that it was not as serious as state propaganda wanted them to believe. Some citizens have realized that their suffering is the result of a senseless, needless policy, rather than the virus itself.

By the end of November, leadership choices, bureaucratic incentives, and a series of tragedies converged and combusted in ways Xi did not intend. Fed up and desperate, crowds of people poured onto the streets.  

WHAT WILL XI DO?

There have been two extreme interpretations of the anti-lockdown protests. One dismisses them as a passing moment of unrest, while another regards them as a potential “color revolution” that might overthrow the regime. Neither is correct. Although China has experienced sporadic protests in the past, they revolved around grievances, such as owed wages or land compensation, that could be resolved by firing low-level officials or granting various concessions. These protesters typically appealed to benevolent central leaders to punish corrupt local leaders. Such clashes, therefore, did not challenge China’s political system; arguably, they helped preserve its resilience by supplying feedback on policies and exposing wrongdoing.

What is different and significant about the recent protests is that they are not about narrow, local conflicts; instead, they are directed at a national policy personally pioneered by Xi. Strikingly, the grievances expressed are not limited to one group but cut across occupations, class backgrounds, ethnicities, and regions. Criticisms have been expressed not just online (as seen in 2020, after the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who warned others about a new virus but was silenced by authorities) but also in person, despite tight surveillance and the risk of arrest.

Yet these demonstrators, as extraordinarily brave as they are, do not yet constitute a revolutionary force. The acts of civil disobedience in the past week have included quiet vigils for the deceased, forceful dismantling of pandemic-control barricades, vigorous chants for freedom, and bold calls for Xi to step down. Although the political protests attract the most media attention, many on the streets appear to be demanding only their physical freedom and the right to their livelihoods—not political change. Moreover, there could be a silent majority that complies with state policies and supports the Chinese Communist Party and Xi; Xi remains popular among nationalists and those who benefited from his antipoverty policies.

In sum, while the anti-lockdown protests are not a “color revolution” aimed at or able to topple the regime, they are the first public display of defiance against a national policy that Xi has encountered under his iron-fisted rule. The situation leaves him in a bind. If he lets the protesters go, he fears he will encourage more of such audacity. If he cracks down, he will create deeper and wider grievances.

China’s recent demonstrators, brave as they are, do not yet constitute a revolutionary force.

There are three possibilities for what happens next. In the most optimistic scenario, Xi would announce that he has heard the people’s concerns, and the virus has turned mild, so it is time to drop the “zero” target and adjust policies. Xi may lose face for admitting and correcting mistakes, but his grip on power is so strong that this would barely dent his authority. The economy would see a sharp rebound from three years of pent-up consumer demand. After policy concessions are made, protests would end, and China will return to stability. This is the best-case scenario that hopeful investors are betting on. But it assumes no change in state-society relations, which is unrealistic, given Xi’s obsession with security and the Chinese public’s growing realization that they can push back.

The second scenario is a mixture of course corrections and heightened repression. So far, this seems to be the likeliest outcome. In a press briefing on November 29 in Beijing, a panel of top health experts pledged to ease unnecessary restrictions and boost vaccinations among the elderly, suggesting that the central government is finally taking steps to live with COVID-19. Some city and district governments appear to have abandoned lockdowns overnight. On the morning of November 30, an acquaintance in the city of Guangzhou wrote to me: “COVID controls have been lifted—miraculously. I went to bed, woke up, and now it’s gone. People are so elated!”

The protesters, meanwhile, are paying a heavy price for their actions. Police have begun making arrests and patrolling public spaces in intimidating numbers. Censorship and surveillance are likely to tighten in an already suffocating environment. Realizing that foreign apps such as Twitter have allowed Chinese protesters to share their messages abroad, police have been randomly stopping people and searching their phones for banned apps. One of Chinas top stationery chains has stopped the sale of A4 white paper, citing the need for “national security and stability.” Thus, while ending zero COVID would be a welcome shift, it would likely be accompanied by the spread of near-totalitarian controls.

There is a third, pessimistic scenario: the central government could reverse the loosening signals and local initiatives seen in the last two days and launch a merciless crackdown on all who have participated in civil disobedience. Xi has not commented on the situation, so it is not known what he thinks. It is unclear that the actions taken by central technocrats and local governments so far have been endorsed by him. Until the new cabinet officially takes office in March 2023, there will be a political vacuum. But if past experience is any guide, Xi will be unwilling to tolerate criticisms directed at the party, let alone at him.

Police have begun making arrests and patrolling public spaces in intimidating numbers.

Since 1989, the ruling party has developed a much more sophisticated arsenal of strategies for repression. It knows that a violent crackdown in public view is too costly. Beijing’s experience with Hong Kong would suggest that mass protests may continue for a while, but afterward, the government can put an end to defiance by punishing protesters one by one—an approach known as “settling scores after the fall.” The unrest may also reinforce Xi’s inward turn, as protesters were able to broadcast and share messages outside China through the Internet. It is not unthinkable that he may cut off all means for people in China to climb over the Great Firewall.

“What is bad can be turned into something good,” Deng Xiaoping once said, reflecting on the significance of the Cultural Revolution. “It can make people think, force them to realize why things go wrong and what needs to change. That was what made it possible to transform China’s political and economic landscape.”

Deng’s words ring true for China today. What happens next depends critically on whether Xi chooses to act with pragmatism and moderation, or with obstinacy and brutality. Regardless, Xi has unintentionally accomplished something profound: his zero-COVID policy has made every Chinese citizen—whether rich or poor, old or young, male or female—appreciate the value of their limited freedoms, not in an abstract, high-flown way but on a deeply personal level. Perhaps the most optimistic interpretation of recent events is that the seeds of meaningful democracy in China have been scattered and cannot be destroyed.

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