Recent protests in the PRC
This is the commentary from the November 28th issue of Sinocism, I decided to make it free for everyone.
Since the start of the pandemic China has had several waves of massive outpourings of online anger, especially around the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Shanghai lockdown disaster and the Guizhou bus tragedy. But that virtual anger about Covid policies and censorship, among other things, did not cross into real world protests. Until the last few days, as people gathered publicly to express their anger and frustration in Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and other cities, and at many college campuses around the country.
The tragic fire in Urumqi that officially killed ten people may have been the proximate cause, but the deeper undercurrents include frustration with the endless and often capricious pandemic controls that are damaging lives and livelihoods and the massively constricted space for any sort of free expression.
China has hundreds protests every day around around the country, but some of the protests over the last few days have been remarkable for their size, messaging, and geographic and demographic distribution. Perhaps most worrying for the leadership and the security services, for whom “political security” is task number one, are the gatherings at many universities around the country, given the long history of student movements in modern China.
The government has a playbook for dealing with these kinds of events and have been hardening the system for many years for just these kinds of threats. Today the police “flooded the zone” with massive presences in areas where there were protests over the weekend.
While there have been some breathless claims using terms like “uprising” and “revolt” I think that is an exaggeration of the protests at this stage, and that the security services will succeed in nipping them in the bud. Some of the more vocal protesters have been or will be detained and some colleges are sending students home early for the Lunar New Year holiday. Families of some participants will be warned by security service personnel, academic cadres or employers. Beijing will likely make more examples of some local officials who have been overzealous with dynamic zero-Covid and reiterate/rework the recent "optimizations" to Covid controls, while pushing harder on propaganda work, censorship and political thought work. And “hostile foreign forces” will be blamed.
But no mistake, the fact that so many were willing to stand up publicly in spite of the likely personal costs is remarkable and meaningful.
But they are stuck with their Covid policy, cases are rising, and there are still too many unvaccinated vulnerable people and too under-developed of a health care system, so if the government were to say "ok, we give in, no more Covid controls" they would likely have a whole different set of economic and social stability issues, not to mention humanitarian and political/propaganda ones, once lots of people start getting really sick and probably many die. It is hard to see any good choices/outcomes over the next several months. Perhaps the government will finally do as many have suggested and push much harder on a vaccination campaign, with a target date for reopening.
There is always the chance that the protests spiral out of control. For all the stability maintenance work Beijing has done they really would have a hard time dealing with tens or hundreds of thousands or more people on the streets in one or more cities. I am not expecting anything like that to happen but you can’t rule it out, and I will bet the security services are not ruling it out. I was in Beijing in the spring of 1989 and no one knew how the protests would eventually spread, grow and evolve the goals. Still, in spite of how stirring these protests have been, I would be surprised if they continue in any meaningful way given how much work the system has put into dealing with just these kinds of contingencies, and how it has repeatedly demonstrated that when it comes to ensuring political security there is no bottom line.
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