Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 571, 1 December 2022

China: Sudden rise in COVID-19 cases leads to sporadic protests
Avishka Ashok

In the news

On 24 November, Apple’s Taiwanese supplier Foxconn apologized for a technical error in the hiring process that caused industrial unrest in the Zhengzhou plant. The workers complained of overdue pay, forced cohabitation with COVID-19-positive colleagues, inadequate quality of meals, and other frustrations caused by the COVID-19 lockdown.

On 25 November, Chinese citizens in Urumqi protested against the COVID-19 lockdown which had continued for more than 100 days. It followed the death of 10 residents in an apartment fire in the city. The protests spread across cities in China in a span of one week. Protestors in Shanghai held a vigil for the residents who lost their lives in Urumqi.

On 29 November, the protests in Guangzhou escalated as the people clashed with the riot police, opposed the government’s zero-COVID policy, and demanded President Xi Jinping step down.

Overseas Chinese nationals in Sydney, Toronto, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, and Massachusetts also protested against the lockdowns in China, calling for an end to the censorship in the country. Protestors within and outside China are using blank white placards as a symbol of dissent, expressing their inability to communicate their discontent.

On 29 November, the US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns remarked that the protests should not be suppressed as the people held the right to protest peacefully. The US Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor estimated 27 protests while Australian think-tank ASPI calculated 43 protests across 22 cities in China this past week.

The Strait Times reported that the state had begun using force to quell the protests; videos of the police escorting handcuffed protestors to an unknown location and using tear gas to disperse the crowds were circulated on Chinese social media. The police also used surveillance tools, facial recognition, location tracking, and QR code scans to track protestors and confront them about their participation.

The incessant and rising unrest also led the government to ease the COVID-19 regulations. On 29 November, authorities in Guangzhou and Chongqing agreed to allow the first contacts of COVID-19 patients to quarantine at home. In Zhengzhou, the authorities announced the slow and cautious reopening of businesses, supermarkets, gyms, and restaurants. Most cities have now discontinued the requirement of PCR reports to access public spaces. On 30 November, Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, in charge of the COVID-19 policies, attended the National Health Commission meeting with health experts and hinted at easing the pandemic regulations. Her statements mark the first public acknowledgement by a Chinese official that the virus is no longer as severe. The meeting also stressed increasing the number of the vaccinated older adult population in China to 90 per cent . However, despite Sun’s comments, the CPC’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission promised to crack down on “the infiltration and sabotage activities of hostile forces” and explained the country’s intolerance towards “illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order.”

Issues at large

First, China’s zero-COVID policy. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, China was one of the few countries to have quickly controlled the increasing numbers of cases within the mainland. In August 2021, while cases were rising uncontrollably in Italy, the US, Spain, India, and other countries across the world, China fared comparatively better because of its strict policies and lockdown measures. Although authoritarian in nature, the officials in China successfully restricted the spread of infections and ensuant deaths. China depended on high-tech tools such as facial recognition, location tracking, surveillance measures, COVID-19 apps, and payment apps to track and prevent the movement of people. With the introduction of the zero-COVID policy, the Chinese government further fortified its control over the daily lives of the common man in China; preventing people from commuting to work, reopening businesses, restricting movement by blocking their travel cards and passes, and more.

Second, economic losses and slowdown. The zero-COVID policy resulted in financial losses, not just to the individual, but also to the state. Even though the Chinese economy marked growth when other countries remained stagnant or dropped lower, the rate of growth was extremely slow and significantly lower than the expectations of the Chinese government. In 2019, the GDP grew by 6.2 per cent, whereas in 2020, the GDP marked a growth of 2.3 per cent. Although the economy fared well in 2021, the growth rate dipped again in 2022 to 3.9 per cent. The government introduced several measures to strengthen the economy such as increasing liquidity, resuming businesses, restaurants, and public spaces, restarting the tourism industry, and boosting industrial output. However, many businesses shut down during the harsh zero-COVID policies. Many foreign companies also moved out as they were unable to keep up the productivity. The regulations also enable the government to blame the pandemic for suppressing protests and dissent within the country.

Third, the growing intensity of the protests in 2022. The recent protests are not the only time Chinese citizens have expressed their discontent against the CPC and President Xi Jinping. Over the past three years, the strict policies and economic issues have strained the people’s trust in the government. The Chinese people have been expressing their dissatisfaction with the government since the beginning of the pandemic. However, the protests in 2022 have been visibly more intense with the authorities being unable to control them. In March 2022, Shanghai residents protested against the long lockdown and food insecurity. In May, students at Peking University in Beijing protested against the restrictions on movement within the campus. In June and July, people protested in Zhengzhou after they were unable to withdraw money from their bank accounts. Protestors accused the authorities of using the health crisis to prevent them from accessing the city’s public transport and spaces. In October, Tibetans protested against the lockdown which had lasted for more than three months. Prior to the 20th Party Congress, protestors sporadically left banners criticizing the CPC’s policies, calling for an end to the lockdown and demanding Xi to step down.

Fourth, the efficacy of the Chinese vaccines. The sudden surge in COVID-19 cases raises questions about the efficiency of the Chinese vaccines and the vaccination drive in the country. On 23 November, the International Monetary Fund reviewed China’s economic policies and recommended boosting the vaccination drive to sustain economic productivity and growth in 2022. Towards the end of 2020, Sinopharm was the only Chinese company to have publicized the research from its phase II and phase III trials. The lack of full transparency further raised questions about the efficacy and safety of the Chinese vaccinations. Another worrying factor is China’s vaccination drive which has left millions of people vulnerable. The older adults in the country are at a higher risk as only 60 per cent have received three doses, and only 40 per cent of those over 80 years have received a minimum of three doses.

Fifth, comparisons with the Tiananmen protests. Analysts from Western countries have been connecting the events of the past weeks to the patterns observed before the Tiananmen crackdown of protests in China in 1989. Before the government violently suppressed the protests in 1989, a similar series of social upheavals shook China. The unrest was caused by poor economic conditions, increased corruption in Chinese politics, and the lack of transparency. The death of former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang in 1989 further pushed the people to gather and demonstrate against the government. Political analysts have been connecting former President Jiang Zemin’s death to the sudden explosion of protests across China.

In perspective

For the first time in three years, the protests have continued for more than two days. The authorities have been unable to control the crowds demonstrating against the policies of the government. The Chinese government, however, is extremely capable of suppressing the protests using force. Given the short span of social movements in China, the week-long protests have been a surprising turn of events.

The reach of the social movement is unclear as most sources only mention the names of major cities such as Beijing, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Shanghai, and Urumqi. It is unknown if the anti-government, anti-Xi Jinping, and anti-zero-COVID policy protests are spread across the country. There is a possibility that the uprisings are limited to cities with large populations that have been subjected to strict lockdown guidelines for a long period of time.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely for the CPC to tolerate a defying population at a time when it struggles to maintain economic growth and deal with the consequences of a volatile property sector. The growing number of COVID-19 cases in the country is a cause of concern for the economy and the government is, therefore, likely to undertake all necessary steps to bring down the cases. Even if the country decides to temporarily pacify the people by easing the restrictions, the complete removal of the zero-COIVD policy seems unlikely in the immediate future.

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