#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 11
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Widespread citizen protests erupted in China this past weekend. What do they mean? What might they mean? Where does China go from here? China is always in the news. The sound of this news has jumped several octaves the beginning of this week.
The Frustrations and Anxieties of China
Beijing Protests (Mark R Cristino EPA-EFE Shutterstock at The Washington Post)
Chinese citizens took to the streets in spontaneous peaceful or silent vigils and protests this past weekend in multiple cities around China. Photographs and videos of these gatherings are all over the news. Commentary on what this means is exploding on social media and ramping up in the Western press. Politicians are beginning to weigh in as well. We need to be careful about what the protests are and are not and what the Chinese government response may be.
An American friend of mine said this morning that “China is burning.” A Chinese friend of mine said that “people are going crazy.” I do not believe that China is burning (yet), though the temperature has certainly spiked. As for people going crazy, why this might be so should not be extrapolated by those outside of China into more than it mostly seems to be.
Is this the second coming of 1989? No.
Is this a signal of widespread discontent with the overall leadership of the country by the Chinese Communist Party? No.
Will grand change come to China this time? No.
Many Chinese citizens are frustrated and scared. Anxieties are through the roof. There is no such thing as a previously-normal life in much of China. Everyone is tracked by a mobile phone app that not only tells the government where they are, but also controls where and when they can go and what they can do. Repeated mass testing for the virus is required for most every 1-3 days. Residential communities and entire city sections are increasingly subject to snap closed management (封闭管理), which is effectively a localized lockdown. Such restrictions may last a few days to much longer.
Families and friends are separated. The ability to shop for food, seek medical attention, and conduct business or work are all interrupted. Finances are stretched (if not broken). Cabin fever sets in. Life is put on indefinite hold. We saw many of the same issues reverberate across America earlier during the pandemic.
China has gone in a different direction than other countries in responding to Covid-19 and is thus now in a different position than the rest of the world. China’s policy of prevention and control remains strict and all-encompassing. It is true that the pivot to a so-called Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy in the second half of 2021 gave the central government wiggle room to adapt and make changes. Unfortunately, these changes have so far continued to be a) reactive, not proactive, b) hampered by inconsistent local implementation and enforcement, and c) not successful in establishing a stable light at the end of the tunnel.
The Chinese government has boxed itself into a corner. First, the response to the pandemic was made personal and political (something we saw in a good chunk of America as well). Second, more effective mRNA vaccines from abroad have been prohibited in reliance on less effective locally-developed vaccines. Third, domestic vaccines were prioritized to younger people in order to emphasize workers staying on the job and with a corresponding questioning of the efficacy of vaccines for the older population.
The result is that an overwhelming percentage of the over-65 crowd in China is both not fully vaccinated nor vaccinated with the best medicine. The risk is clear. In America today, a recent report indicates that almost 90% of the continuing deaths from Covid-19 are in the 65-and-older population (even with better and broader vaccination of the elderly). If China’s prevention and control efforts are not effective—and they are being seriously challenged over the past few weeks with skyrocketing (for China) numbers, then hospitals could be swamped and untold thousands could die.
Getting back to the protests, do some want a change in China’ s leadership, along with freedom of speech and assembly and democracy? Certainly. But I do not believe that this is the main (or even a significant) impetus for the protests. Rather, people need breathing room, some semblance of a return to the life the Party promised and has delivered to them for four decades. They are venting their fear.
The Chinese security state is impressive and repressive. So far, the police and government response appears to have been rather muted. There is always the risk that it could become more violent if the government cannot contain what sparked this weekend through other means. Xi Jinping is a student of history and invested in legacy. He will want to avoid Deng Xiaoping’s 1989 crackdown response if possible, and he has much more sophisticated means to do so now. He also faces a population that is protesting for much more primal reasons than those of earlier times. The Chinese people have signaled that they are losing hope and need an outlet and relief.
Most of us live in a new world. China is still trying to find its way. I hope this is a wake-up call for the Party. In fact, so-called Covid-response-optimization statements have already appeared in several of the affected cities (re-opening certain areas, limiting certain restrictions, proscribing what should and should not be done to protect the people). The question is whether centralized pronouncements will be honored in scattered localities led by provincial, regional, municipal, and village officials whose own heads are on the potential chopping block. It may be time for centralized action and not just decrees to get China back on track.