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It has been a long time since demonstrators filled the streets of Chinese cities crying out, “We want freedom!” and “The Chinese Communist Party should step down!” But the seemingly unthinkable has happened in recent days as an upwelling of protest erupted against Beijing’s draconian “zero COVID” policies and then morphed into a more general expression of opposition against the suffocating controls that the CCP has imposed on Chinese society.
Do these events threaten the reign of President Xi Jinping, who has just been anointed with a third term as general secretary of the party? Are they a historical tipping point? Or will they prove to be an epiphenomenon that the well-organized CCP will easily bring to heel with more repression? After all, in the wake of the far more tectonic 1989 demonstrations, and even the ensuing Beijing massacre around Tiananmen Square, Chinese leaders not only put the protest genie back in the bottle but also went on to initiate a period of impressive economic growth and stability.
Although the United States has no shortage of China experts, we have never accurately predicted moments of historical inflection in this “people’s republic.” Few of us foresaw Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, the mass demonstrations that led to the massacre in 1989, or Xi’s embrace of a neo-Maoist techno-autocracy over the last decade. But our failure to anticipate this most recent spark of dissent is perhaps more understandable; after all, as Xi’s one-party Leninist imperium has gathered momentum, most foreign journalists have been expelled from China. Compounding the problem, Chinese citizens themselves have also been cowed into silence. Without independent polling, a free press, fair elections, and academic freedom, and with Xi now exercising control over every organ through which public sentiment might find expression, it has become difficult for outsiders to gauge public sentiment there.
For those looking into this black box from the outside, it had been too easy to assume that everything is under control and that Xi has found an effective recipe for a durable autocracy. But whatever the outcome of these demonstrations, they indicate that Xi has no more discovered the secret sauce for totalitarian success than did Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro—or Mao himself. The protests remind us, instead, that the people Xi rules, like people everywhere, do not live by bread, shopping malls, video games, and leisure travel alone, and that many do not want to be confined, censored, bullied, detained, or imprisoned. To assume otherwise is patronizing and overlooks the long and august Chinese historical tradition of seeking rights and freedoms.
To hear voices calling for Xi and the CCP to step down suggests that an elusive but important psychological line may have been crossed. But Xi is not a leader who accepts lèse majesté easily, and he will most certainly take umbrage and seek retribution.
The current wave of disaffection was extraordinary, given the number of protests across China and the depth of the emotions that were expressed against the CCP and Xi. But even more striking is that the protests happened at all. Under Xi, the cost of speaking out has been so high that silence has prevailed. But as the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz observed upon accepting the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” In China, the trigger may have been dissatisfaction over management of the pandemic, but it did not take long for angry people to also voice grievances of a more political nature and begin criticizing Xi’s autocratic leadership and suppression of free expression.
In so doing, they are continuing a long tradition. As I wrote for Foreign Affairs in 2004, “In the first decades of the twentieth century—when, after the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, the Chinese last found themselves searching for a new political beginning—China was a fermentation vat of free thinking, political inquiry, open discussion, self-criticism, research, and writing.” The first major public expression of this ferment came with the 1919 May Fourth Movement, when Chinese intellectuals demonstrated not only against the predations of European great powers but also in favor of science and democracy at home. The same spirit motivated movements against Chiang Kai-shek’s autocratic Nationalist rule in the 1930s and 1940s, criticism of CCP rule in the late 1970s by pamphleteers such as Wei Jingsheng, the pro-democracy student movement and the essays of the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi in the mid-1980s, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, and the critiques made by members of the Charter 08 movement led by Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and died a political prisoner in 2017.
The recent demonstrations were not rooted in abstract ideological concerns: they were spurred by anger over China’s zero-COVID restrictions, poor working conditions in factories (such as the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou that manufactures equipment for Apple), and the deaths of ten people as a result of an apartment-building fire in Urumqi, a city in the predominantly Muslim Uyghur area of Xinjiang in northwestern China. Many believe these deaths would have been avoidable were it not for zero-COVID policies.
Those grievances quickly grew to include demands for more freedoms and liberties. But because protesters feared arrest, many simply held up blank sheets of paper to express their disapproval and remind observers that they cannot speak freely. Since everyone understands those sheets to be symbols of remonstration, images of blank paper have become as forbidden as dissident political tracts on the Chinese Internet. Therein lies a great irony. Xi’s avatar, Mao, once penned a famous essay in which he proclaimed: “On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.”
In the days after the protests came the death of former CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin, an avuncular and garrulous (if sometimes clownish) leader. When I joined U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1998 trip to China, I was riveted by the open and solicitous way Jiang interacted with his American counterpart. He demonstratively wanted to be accepted by the cosmopolitan Western world.
Compared with Xi’s rigid formalism and dependence on ritual and protocol, Jiang’s beguiling informality came from a completely different universe of leadership. Now Xi will be compelled to preside over a memorial for Jiang. In the past, such ceremonial occasions have proved dangerous for the CCP. When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai died in 1976, Tiananmen Square spontaneously filled with tens of thousands of mourners who wanted not just to celebrate him but also to criticize Mao and his Cultural Revolution. And when former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang passed away in 1989, his death set off the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that led to the Beijing massacre.
Although it is impossible to foretell whether Jiang’s funeral will become such a catalytic agent, the events that have been playing out reveal that just underneath the crust of order maintained by the CCP, there is a molten core of alienation. Totalitarian control mechanisms may have prevented people from openly expressing their outrage, but they have not prevented anger from quietly pooling up beneath the seemingly orderly surface. And historically, when such pressure has become too great, this molten core has erupted in surprising ways.