They’re spreading like wildfire. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) restrictive policies to limit COVID-19 have sparked a wave of protests from Xinjiang province to Beijing to Shanghai. And the protesters are looking for much more than an end to severe lockdowns; some are also pushing for Xi Jinping to step down and for the party to stop censoring dissent. How is the CCP likely to scramble to save face—and will its efforts even work? Our experts give their takes on what the future holds.
When the real crisis for the CCP starts
China’s Communist Party (CCP) is boxed in by its zero-COVID policy (ZCP). It’s much more than a branding that served CCP political goals until Omicron variants hit them. The CCP doesn’t have the health infrastructure to do what the US government or some Western European governments did—fail at many public-health measures but ride it out and push vaccinations while accepting large numbers of deaths. If they “let it rip,” a collapsed healthcare system (with sick or dead doctors and nurses) and 1.6 million dead (primarily those over age sixty who remain largely unvaccinated) could be an optimistic result.
Part of the current wave of new lockdowns is a failed ZCP easing a few weeks ago after the Twentieth Party Congress. The CCP’s only practical way out is to import or license and manufacture Western mRNA vaccines and compel or encourage vaccination, especially of the elderly. But even if they decided to do that today, that solution won’t produce results for months—or even another year. And the CCP would have to admit that their policies and reliance on domestic vaccines had failed, which they are loath to do.
Politically, they have a vast stick, far more sophisticated, layered, and pervasive than during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In some ways, this is the situation for which Xi and his predecessor built the hardened party-state. But like even the biggest bank, they can’t survive a run in the form of major, persistent protests everywhere all the time. The crowds I’ve seen up to now are small—hundreds, up to a thousand—but given the consequences the protesters face, they are clearly the brave tip of the iceberg.
A practical course would include selective crackdowns now and easing over time. The Spring Festival starts on January 22 next year, so that will be a key test—if they prevent travel on a large scale, their security nightmare will deepen, but travel could create superspreader events nationwide. That would unfold just before the National People’s Congress in March, which is held to install the new premier and State Council to complete the leadership arrangements unveiled at the Party Congress last month.
So the CCP needs to stop the most visible of the protests, especially in Beijing and Shanghai, but start to offer people hope: Rely more on masks, isolating the sick, and even China’s less-effective vaccines; announce plans to import/license the latest Western therapies, ease lockdowns by shifting the criteria, and ride it out.
The key things to look for are leadership divisions. This comes at a very interesting time—after Xi won his third term, but before the new premier and State Council are announced in March. I subscribe to Lucian Pye’s 1980s writings for RAND on the nature of CCP factionalism. The ingredients for factions are always there, embedded in the nature of the CCP and Chinese system. But they are latent until crisis, and then mere guanxi connections crystalize into something much more significant—power networks arrayed toward particular leaders based on calculations of power and survival (political and literal, perhaps).
The crisis so far is not sufficient for factions to form among elites, especially so soon after Xi’s complete victory in October. But there’s a perfect storm potential where the regime relies on the stick; doesn’t provide hope or a plan to get out of ZCP hell; and protests spread, build, and are sustained. For watchers in the United States, discerning when factional formation is happening will be much harder today than in 1989, when then CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s split was public, on global TV, and on the front page of People’s Daily for weeks. Instead, discerning it will take a tea-leaf reading of who shows up where during the Lunar New Year, the comments made by departing figures like Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, or any public emergence of former party chiefs Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who implicitly criticized Xi via his ZCP policies. If there’s going to be a major 1989-scale political crisis, it will have to start at the top, not from the grassroots. If grassroot events show Xi’s opponents that there’s a need and opportunity, that’s when the real crisis for Xi and the CCP would start.
I haven’t seen the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in the video clips of protests—there is a lot of dubious footage floating around, but all I’ve seen are local cops and health workers pushing back protesters. When we see the PAP in Beijing, Shanghai, or other major cities, that will demarcate an intensifying crisis. It’s a huge anti-riot force, but anti-riot should not be the regime’s preferred solution—they can’t be everywhere, as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) understood in 1989.
Speaking of the PLA, the anticorruption campaign Xi launched ten years ago has put him in an excellent position to be able to rely on the PLA for domestic turmoil in a manner Hu could not. I see the military as a wholly subordinate force, more integrated into domestic stability operations than ten years ago, and completely broken as an independent political actor—there’s no prospect of an Egypt/Hosni Mubarak scenario in China today. If you see the PLA rolling into cities, that means the regime is ready to kill people to stay in power, but their initial goal would be to avoid that by cowing them. No competent regime pushes their military, no matter how loyal, into repeated confrontations with the people—it’s a card they can only play a few times before the guns could start to swing the other way.
—John Culver is a nonresident senior fellow at the Global China Hub and former US national intelligence officer for East Asia.
Xi’s unpalatable choices: Ease up or crack down
The protests against Xi’s zero-COVID policy represent the greatest challenge to his power since he first claimed China’s helm a decade ago. At the heart of the problem is the very authoritarian system the regime touts as being a superior form of governance. The zero-COVID policy, though meant to protect public health, was enforced with arbitrary severity by local officials with little accountability. Xi is left with unpalatable choices: ease the policy and risk both damage to his political standing and an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak or crack down and possibly incite greater resistance. For now, the leadership is signaling it will keep zero-COVID in place but modify it to eliminate some of its excesses, but it’s not at all clear whether that will satisfy a frustrated public.
The measures announced so far to ease—or “optimize,” as the regime calls it—the zero-COVID policy are generally tweaks to the existing system, such as reductions in certain quarantine periods. I think the government is going to have to introduce more fundamental changes to really make a difference. As long as the pandemic strategy relies on arbitrary detentions and business closures, people’s lives and livelihoods will continue to face disruptions, and public discontent could continue to rise. Furthermore, as long as the leadership demands that infections must be kept at or near zero, local officials will still feel pressured to take whatever steps they can to suppress the virus on their watch. And that means continued abuses.
—Michael Schuman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Global China Hub and a contributing writer to the Atlantic magazine.
Expect even more repressive policies across the board
While public protests are not uncommon in China, it is the size and geographic spread of unrest across multiple cities emerging from a shared frustration with a central government policy—in this case, strict ZCP measures—and instances of broader anger at the government and at Xi Jinping himself that are highly unusual and no doubt concerning for Xi and other leaders. The party-state is typically highly effective in using its tools of censorship and social control to prevent protests in localities over labor, environmental, and other issues from becoming shared grievances against the central government.
This does not mean we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Communist Party. But the question now becomes whether the playbook of a relatively restrained police crackdown, stepped-up propaganda and censorship efforts, and selective arrests employed thus far will be effective in quelling protests. And, if protests do not fizzle on their own (including as a result of poor weather expected in Beijing and Shanghai), what will Chinese leaders directing the party-state’s massive “stability maintenance” architecture do to ensure things do not spiral out of control? If unrest grows, with tens of thousands protesting across major cities, it is not implausible that Xi may step up use of China’s internal security apparatus—including the PAP—to restore order and to head off the sort of internal factional leadership challenge John Culver references above, in ways almost certain to involve significant casualties. Beyond the potentially awful human toll, this result would likely set the groundwork for even more repressive policies across the board as the party-state’s rule becomes more brittle and reliant on the threat of brute force and information control to maintain power.
There is also a “competing models” element to this in the damage to China’s global narrative about the superiority of its model. Clearly these protests are not compatible with Xi’s claims that China’s successful management of COVID-19, in comparison to the United States and other developed democracies, has demonstrated the effectiveness of China’s authoritarian system in comparison to democracy and more broadly puts the lie to the argument frequently (and increasingly) repeated by Chinese officials that the Chinese people overwhelmingly approve of party rule and its approach to governance.
—David O. Shullman is the senior director of the Global China Hub and a former US intelligence official focused on East Asia.
Beware comparisons to 1989. This is mostly about COVID
There are four critical points to consider when tracking these protests from afar.
First, China’s campaigns on global social media platforms are distinct from activities on domestic social media—and even are undertaken by different entities. The global social media campaigns on these issues are aimed at information suppression and preventing news from spreading, either to the domestic population or to the diaspora and broader audiences through Chinese citizens getting information out from China. Domestic social media campaigns are focused on censoring discussions and critiques of zero-COVID and suppressing news of protests, while amplifying neutral news of the fire in Xinjiang province to prevent rumors from spreading. Calls for regime change during some protests were real, but I’d be reluctant to say that it was a primary theme. At the same time, it’s difficult to say how widespread any online calls for regime change are on Chinese social media, as anything like that is automatically censored. For example, anything you post about Xi, Tiananmen Square, etc., is automatically blocked.
Second, these protests should not be viewed as “sudden” or spontaneous. The protests mostly center on public frustrations over the draconian measures of zero-COVID, which have been building over the past several months. China’s censorship machine has been working overtime in the past half year to take down essays, comments, news, etc. on domestic social media platforms documenting events of public ire, desperation, and hopelessness over the lockdown measures. Preventable deaths are especially sensitive, which is why the news of the Urumqi fire served as a catalyst for this round of protests. For example, an incident in September, when a bus carrying residents to a quarantine facility overturned and killed twenty-seven people, was heavily censored and repressed after it sparked intense public backlash online.
Third, the protests seem to be involving a broader coalition (students, workers, rural people) than is normal in most protests. The vast majority of protests focus on local issues and local government, leading the central government to mostly remain insulated from serious challenges to its legitimacy. But because zero-COVID is a central policy, criticism is more likely being targeted at the top. This can reach dangerous territory for the CCP. All the major crackdowns of the past—Tiananmen, the Falun Gong movement, etc.—involved causes that mobilized large numbers of people and challenged the legitimacy of the central government (rather than being just local in scope). Zero-COVID is potentially such a driver.
Fourth, we still need to remain cautious about drawing direct parallels to 1989, as some are doing. China implemented intense reforms after the Tiananmen Square massacre and has nearly perfected its repression mechanisms. Also, zero-COVID is still an acute issue, and most of the angry crowd energy would be dispelled quickly if the regime makes even modest shifts to the policy, which it can do if the heat rises too much. The CCP may also be allowing protests to a certain extent as a kind of pressure-release valve, before an internal red line may be triggered to implement crackdowns. Additionally, today’s CCP does not have obvious factions like there were in 1989. Xi has loyalists installed at the central and provincial levels of government, and it is perhaps less likely that these elites would support the protesters in the way that moderates did in 1989. At the same time, Chinese elite politics in the Xi era are notoriously opaque, and we should be circumspect in drawing too many broad conclusions.
—Kenton Thibaut is the resident China fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Chinese voices amplify protests online as officials crack down
The recent zero-COVID protests in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xinjiang carry the momentum of previous demonstrations, such as the Beijing Sitong Bridge protest and the current Zhengzhou Foxconn clashes. The sudden outpouring of protests already surpasses the scale of those resisting Xi’s third term in the Twentieth Party Congress last month. Chinese voices are actively amplifying the protests on Western social media platforms, and overseas students are also putting up posters and organizing demonstrations.
On Monday, officials reportedly cracked down on residents in the protest area by having security forces check phones for foreign apps and VPN usage. Some organizers may have used WeChat and everyone has a COVID-19 app that tracks location information. Thus, some protestors will likely be taken away for disobeying gathering restrictions.
Although the protests are still ongoing, they are unlikely to lead to foundational reforms of the Chinese government or any significant easing of pandemic restrictions in their current form. Shijiazhuang eased testing requirements this month, leading to speculation about the end of the nation-wide zero-COVID policy, only to reinstate them days later. The vaccination rates of the elderly are low enough to forestall a quick reopening. Furthermore, further rent-seeking by COVID-19 testing and enforcement stakeholders may also prevent opening up. Nevertheless, the protests are a striking display of the emotional, physical, and economic toll experienced by Chinese people under these stringent lockdowns.
— Anonymous. The author was granted anonymity to speak freely and safely about sensitive matters.
China’s internal-security struggles point to weakening international power
It is unlikely that these protests will result in the near-term fall of the CCP, but it reminds the world that regime instability is a persistent weakness of dictatorships—like Xi’s China—in great power competition. In my study of democracy versus autocracy over 2,500 years of great power rivalry, I found that autocracies often struggle to compete internationally because they are preoccupied with challenges to internal security. Indeed, today China spends more on internal security than on its military, whereas US spending is 2:1 in the opposite direction. These competitions throughout history often resulted in the collapse of the autocratic competitor; these protests remind the world that the US-China competition might very well conclude with a CCP regime collapse.
—Matthew Kroenig is the acting director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former US Department of Defense and intelligence community official.
With China’s economy disrupted, leaders will need to relax macroeconomic policies
Protests against the strict implementation of the zero-COVID policy have spread among big cities and major university campuses across China and have been met with police measures. This, and the fact that COVID-19 infection rates have reached record daily levels of more than forty thousand cases, means that economic activity will likely be disrupted and in more locations, further depressing growth for the remainder of the year. China’s authorities will have to ease at least some of the draconian measures of the zero-COVID policy to calm public sentiment and, more importantly, will have to relax macroeconomic policies to support the economy. There is room for China’s monetary policy to be eased further, beyond this year’s reserves requirement ratio cuts to 7.8 percent and specific packages designed to help the real estate sector.
—Hung Tran is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center.
What investors are seeing in the zero-COVID hit to China’s economy
The economic shockwaves from the protests so far appear confined to production of Apple’s iPhone 14 at a Foxconn Technology Group factory in Zhengzhou, where workers rioted over COVID-19 lockdowns and other indignities. But the unrest does not bode well for an economy struggling to recover from the worst downturn in more than forty years. Zero-COVID policies have decimated demand for retail goods, entertainment, and travel; weakened business investment; worsened a troubling property crisis; and caused many foreign investors to reconsider their commitment to China. Youth unemployment in the cities is creeping up toward 20 percent, adding to the anger in the streets.
Some investors—especially foreign institutions that always appear ready to give the Chinese government the benefit of the doubt—have taken heart from Beijing’s stated commitment to loosen COVID-19 restrictions. But they are also witnessing confusion on the ground among the officials charged with implementing that policy. The economic malaise can only deepen in the face of continuing anger in the streets and mixed messages from China’s rulers.
—Jeremy Mark is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center and former International Monetary Fund official and Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent.
Article first time published on the Atlantic Council web page. Cover illustration source the Atlantic Council.