Shortcuts / 08 December 2022

China’s COVID protests

China is a country known for quashing any dissent before it makes it anywhere near the media. But recently, anti-lockdown protests have been springing up all over the country and once unheard-of criticism of the Government is creeping into social channels. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at what’s fuelling those demonstrations, where COVID’s at in China, and what it all means for President Xi Jinping.

Aren’t protests in China pretty unusual?
Yep – authorities are pretty quick to shut it down, so it’s a rare thing to hear anything about it.

What’s the deal this time?
Unrest has been brewing in China since the start of the pandemic nearly 3 years ago. It was 31 December 2019 when the local health authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia which turned out to be COVID.

What’s happened in recent weeks?
The flashpoint was an apartment fire that killed 10 people in the western province of Urumqi. There was a video circulating of people screaming to be let out of their building which was under strict lockdown orders, even though authorities dispute they were able to leave.

Why was the building locked down?
So lockdowns are still very much a thing in China – the government has been continuing to pursue a COVID-zero policy – that is, they want no COVID cases circulating in the community – long after the rest of the world has really moved on.

But we’re “living with COVID” here in Oz…
Absolutely, as have so many nations. There’s been a recent uptick in cases here, and you’ll note that neither PM Anthony Albanese nor the premiers are advocating for lockdowns or other big restrictions.

So those protesting in China are over the lockdowns?
Pretty much. And these demonstrations show an explosion of frustration and anger that’s come with China’s endless lockdowns and strict rules.

How widespread are these protests?
They started off quite localised in Urumqi but spread to 15 different regions of China, including Beijing and Shanghai.

Who’s joining these protests?
Reports say it goes across the population. Students in Shanghai were shouting “we don’t want COVID tests – we want freedom” and factory workers across the other side of the country were crying out “give me liberty or give me death.”

How did reports of these protests get out?
Well, even though the Chinese internet is heavily censored to pull down any videos or social media posts that might undermine the Chinese government, the censors can’t keep up. This means that vision of these protests was spread widely on the popular Chinese apps Weibo and WeChat before they can be pulled down.

I’m guessing authorities aren’t too happy…
Nope. Last week, authorities issued a stern warning calling for a “crackdown” against “hostile forces”, with videos showing a big police presence in Shanghai. And there were reports of officers checking the smartphones of subway passengers to see what they’d been up to.

It’s been nearly 3 years since the pandemic started. Why has this blown up now?
Three years is a long time when you’re in and out of lockdowns… For example, its biggest city Shanghai was locked down for all of April and May this year, leading to food shortages and terrible hardships which have now become the norm.

How has President Xi Jinping justified that?
He’s called COVID a “devil virus” – one that only an “all-out people’s war” – could vanquish. And he points to the results of the restrictions – the government claims there have been 5,000 deaths in the country – although the World Health Organisation thinks it’s closer to 30,000.

That’s really low…
It sure is in a population of 1.4 billion people. To put those numbers in perspective – Australia has reported around 15,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, and obviously, we are just a tiny fraction of China’s population.

But lockdowns come with a big cost…
They do, and they can take an enormous toll on people and their livelihoods. And the World Health Organisation has long warned it’s not sustainable for China to try to keep managing the virus in this way.

And it’s affecting the global economy, right?
It sure is – after the war in Ukraine, China’s ongoing lockdowns are quoted as a big economic headwind. Regions that produce a quarter of China’s economic output were affected by lockdowns in early November. 

So how’s the government managing that?
Well, the government is going to extraordinary lengths to make sure people can’t see what’s happening everywhere else. For example, Chinese censors have cut out footage of maskless crowds in the stadiums at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Wow… So how’s all this playing out for the guy in charge?
Well, it was just over a month ago President Xi was celebrating being reappointed for a historic 3rd 5-year term with no challengers in sight. But there are questions being asked if his iron grip on the country is actually all that it seems.

So he didn’t really see the protests coming?
Well, experts say Xi hasn’t read his people very well – that separating China’s COVID response from that of the rest of the world was something to be proud of and the population would keep putting up with all the restrictions and hardship. But the longer it’s gone on, Xi’s hardline stance has worn many down, and some are now saying enough’s enough.

And they never thought the lockdowns would go on for so long…
Yep, and there was the expectation that Xi would start winding back restrictions when he secured that historic 3rd term back in October. But when he didn’t, it added to the steam in the pressure cooker.

So what’s happening now?
The Chinese government is taking the first steps to wind back some restrictions. Several Chinese cities including Shanghai and Shenzhen began easing some rules even as COVID continued to circulate. And this week, more restrictions were eased across the country.

What kind of restrictions?
Some of the stricter ones like widespread lockdown measures and mandatory PCR testing for travellers. And asymptomatic cases and people with mild symptoms are now allowed to quarantine at home instead of being forced to go to a centralised quarantine facility.

So Xi is listening to the protestors?
It appears so, or at least a little bit. The pro-Xi South China Morning Post reported he acknowledged the protests in a meeting with European leaders last week – though he apparently told them they were driven by frustrated students. But the fact Xi has allowed that to be reported in the local press is a definite signal to protestors that he hears them.

What’s the plan from here?
Xi’s facing a few challenges if and when he does decide to loosen restrictions even further. The big one that’s talked about a lot is that around 40% of people aged over 80yo have had at least 3 shots – that’s a low vaccination rate.

What happens if China reopens?
Some experts say there could be a big spike in COVID deaths. China is just entering the start of its winter, and it’s upping vaccination efforts. And lockdowns are still on the cards but will now be targeted to buildings, units or floors rather than to whole neighbourhoods or cities.

So it seems to come down to mass lockdowns versus mass infections?
And the worst-case scenario could be that China has both lockdowns and mass infections. 

That’s a tricky balancing act…
It is, and it’s why a lot of China watchers are calling the next few months the biggest test of Xi’s leadership since he came to power in 2012.

Squiz recommends:

Why is China struggling to vaccinate the elderly? – BBC

The Prince: Searching for Xi Jinping – The Economist

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