Last weekend of November, multiple protests against the policy «COVID Zero» from the government. The demonstrations suggest that a significant portion of the Chinese population is tired of the long-term strict restrictions that much of the planet has been co-existing with the virus for some time. Although there have been far more social protests in China than is commonly believed, the ones we are witnessing these days are particularly important for three reasons: their horizontality, their geographic scope, and their criticism of the central government.
Protests in China tend to be specific and involve very specific social groups, such as workers in a certain factory or people in a certain place, who demonstrate to demand better working conditions or denounce corruption in local authorities. However, the demonstrations these days have been led by various segments of the urban population, including blue and white collar workers, migrant workers and students. In addition, according to CNN data, they occurred simultaneously in multiple places, 17 cities, and were not limited to criticizing the way local leaders interpreted the «dynamic zero COVID policy», but in some cases, they also directly targeted Xi Jinping himself, who There were calls for his resignation. For all these reasons, it is no exaggeration to say that they are the most potentially destabilizing demonstrations since Tiananmen in the spring of 1989. However, it is too early to tell where the movement is headed. It is too risky to say it will destabilize the leadership of Xi Jinping or the regime of the Chinese Communist Party. For now, the authorities’ strategy appears to be working, with no new protests emerging. In addition to increasing police presence and arresting protesters where demonstrations took place last week, we must also ease restrictions in some of the country’s major cities. Cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing have announced in recent days the relaxation of strategies against COVID-19, despite the increase in the number of infections. This has been formally proposed as a way of being directed by the central government and integrated in the measures announced by China’s National Health Commission on 11 November. In this way, in Beijing, local authorities have been thrust into the spotlight for overzealously explaining their guidelines.
If we add that there is neither organizational structure nor significant leadership behind these protests, the prediction from US officials is that they will not spread for a while. And even if they do, the main lever that popular movements have to bring about deep political change within authoritarian regimes is to create divisions within the regime so that some people come to support them. This is unlikely to happen if we consider that after the recent 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the leadership of the party and the military enjoys the utmost confidence of Xi Jinping.
In any case, this matter will have to hang in the balance because, as we already anticipated in previous posts, the Chinese Communist Party has to face a very complex transition from its «zero COVID» policy to a strategy of coexistence with COVID -19. There is Several structural factors suggest that a rapid transition to a strategy of co-existence with COVID-19 could trigger a serious health crisis in China, and after nearly three years of demanding massive population sacrifices, its potential political implications could be severe and public In the name of hygiene.
It is likely that Chinese leaders are waiting for the development of an indigenous mRNA vaccine with similar efficacy to those developed in developed countries before taking this step. But when they will achieve this is unclear. The current Chinese vaccine is much less effective. Even the most advanced Chinese RNA vaccine AWcorna, which has been licensed in Indonesia, was only 71.17% effective at preventing moderate cases of the omicron variant. The haste with which China managed to produce the vaccine will be an important factor in determining the emergence of new protests in support of a less repressive approach to COVID-19.
Another option available to Chinese authorities is to vaccinate its population with vaccines developed by Western pharmaceutical companies. However, this possibility is currently ruled out because chauvinistic nationalism, which glorifies self-sufficiency, plays an outsized role in the regime’s legitimacy.
In the wake of the protests, the government has focused on increasing the proportion of the population vaccinated, which is particularly low among the elderly. Many older adults decide not to get vaccinated, considering that the risk of possible side effects from vaccines is not worth the risk when COVID is zero. According to China’s National Health Commission, only 56% of people aged 60 to 69 in China have completed the vaccination program, and that number drops to 48% among those aged 70 to 79, and among those aged 70 and 79. It drops to 20% between the ages. 80 years old.
We’ll have to see if the stabilization time the authorities get through these measures is enough to avoid the overwhelming pressure of the possibility of living with COVID-19 triggering our protests in China.
Image: Hubei medical team assists community testing of COVID-19 in Shanghai, April 4, 2022. Image: China News Network (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0).