The wave of demonstrations across China demanding an end to the draconian zero-COVID measures is like nothing the country has seen in decades.
From university campuses to busy streets in the downtown areas, people held up pieces of white paper as a symbol of protest after a deadly fire in a Xinjiang neighborhood under lockdown. The most dramatic moments happened over the weekend, when protesters could be heard shouting “Xi Jinping, step down.”
It is a brave and risky gesture to defy the Chinese president so publicly. Beijing’s strongman has only recently secured a third term in office, breaking with tradition and consolidating his unchallenged power base.
POLITICO breaks down what this means for China’s leader.
How bad is it for Xi?
So far, there’s no sign to suggest any significant damage to Xi’s position at the top of the Communist Party.
Nevertheless, it is the first major show of resistance from the public under Xi’s rule, and the grievances directed against the top of the Chinese government are too loud to be unheard.
Xi has made zero-COVID a personal political project. With the public now openly opposing the symbols of that policy — such as the strict PCR test requirements and mask regulations — he will no doubt be seen as personally liable for the public anger.
Ho-fung Hung, an academic at Johns Hopkins University specializing in China’s protest movements, says the government and society “are in the process of seeking a new equilibrium. There can be conflicts and instability in the process.”
Still, the timing could have been worse for Xi, if the protests had taken place before the 20th Communist Party congress last month, when he was confirmed in his position for a precedent-breaking third term.
How significant is the public defiance?
The last comparable episode was the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square, but back then the demonstration was much larger in scale and occupied the iconic square at the heart of Beijing.
Most of the young people protesting against COVID restrictions this year had little or no recollection of that deadly protest more than 30 years ago. Not only were they not yet born, but there’s also no footage of Tiananmen Square available under the censorship regime.
In a way, the most dangerous shock to Xi could be the political awakening of so many young, educated minds who are ready publicly to come out against him.
Students from more than 100 universities have shown solidarity with the protesters, according to Cai Xia, a defector from the Communist Party’s ideology school who now lives in the U.S.
Is brutal repression avoidable?
For now, the police have refrained from a bloody crackdown on the protesters, even though there were arrests. Cases of physical assaults were also reported, like BBC journalist Ed Lawrence, who was covering the protest in Shanghai.
After an intense weekend, the police presence was significantly beefed up on Monday. Some of the streets in Shanghai, for instance, had been cordoned off with barricades, turning some of the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods into no-go zones.
On Tuesday, there was no word of protests in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities due to the heavy police presence, according to the Associated Press.
At this stage, it is unclear whether the unrest is over or whether the protesters are simply waiting for their next opportunity.
Some universities also announced plans to send students back home for the winter break earlier than scheduled, in an apparent move to stop them from organizing further protests.
How’s the market reacting?
Not great — initially. The immediate reaction across global stock markets was pessimistic on Monday, fuelled by a sense of political uncertainty.
The benchmark Chinese market, Shanghai Composite, dropped by 2.2 percent briefly, while the Shenzhen Component Index, with a focus on tech, fell by 0.7 percent.
On Tuesday, however, both indexes rose 2 percent, as there were no reports of new protests overnight. “Mass protests would deeply tilt the scales in favor of an even weaker economy,” Stephen Innes, managing partner of SPI Asset Management, said.
How does the West see it?
In the U.K., Foreign Secretary James Cleverly weighed in. “Protests against the Chinese government are rare and when they do happen, I think the world should take notice, but I think the Chinese government should take notice,” Cleverly told reporters.
European Council President Charles Michel will arrive in Beijing on Thursday, as he faces calls to send a strong message to Xi to respect the peaceful protests.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s spokesman questioned why China’s still not using Western vaccines and instead relying on the policy of draconian lockdowns.
Speaking at a regular press conference in Berlin on Monday, spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit said Germany had “taken note” of the protests as well as “reports about partly violent actions of the [Chinese] security forces against the demonstrators.”
In the U.S., the Biden administration is responding cautiously, reflecting in part a U.S. desire to stabilize a vital but increasingly adversarial relationship with Beijing.
There were no statements or tweets from President Joe Biden. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan also avoided comment.
Some slightly critical comments came from an unnamed National Security Council spokesperson.
“As we’ve said, we think it’s going to be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their zero Covid strategy,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
What are Xi’s options?
They’re limited. In the battle to contain the coronavirus, strict lockdown measures have been Xi’s preference from the start. China remains opposed to using Western mRNA vaccines — which have proven to be much more effective in dealing with the latest variants of the coronavirus. The number of cases in Beijing, for instance, doubled over the weekend and remained on a rise by Tuesday.
Still, the nationwide statistics over recent days — over 30,000 daily new cases — account for only a tiny minority of the country’s 1.4 billion population. Officially, just over 5,200 have died from the virus since the pandemic began.
A sudden removal of lockdown measures would likely trigger a surge in infections among a population that has not been well vaccinated. Opting for Western vaccines, however, would entail a very public loss of face for the man in charge. It seems more of the same is the likeliest course of action in Beijing.