Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Through brute force, high-tech surveillance and a rare willingness to temper its harsh COVID-19 policies, Beijing appears to have successfully snuffed out its worst protests since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989.
The nationwide demonstrations were sparked by a fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, that killed 10 people and injured nine on Nov. 24. The city had been under lockdown for more than three months, and many felt that locked doors and other anti-COVID measures had hobbled firefighters’ efforts.
But the situation remains volatile. Frustration had been building up over President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy, a no-tolerance approach to outbreaks through the deployment of rampant, wide-ranging and harshly enforced lockdowns and testing. The World Cup showed Chinese audiences that people outside China were enjoying a maskless life, which only made them more resentful.
And so protesters across the country focused on one issue: Mr. Xi’s policy brainchild. Quickly, the protests became political, with some chanting that China’s leader should step down.
Such direct criticism of the leader is almost unheard of. Such actions carry a high level of personal risk and virtually no chance of success.
They are also deeply humiliating to the leadership, especially to Mr. Xi. They show that the nation is far from united behind the party, despite its claims. Just last month, when U.S. President Joe Biden met face to face with his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Xi had asserted that the party was supported “by the 1.4 billion people” and that the two countries should not try to “change or even subvert the other party’s system.”
Both sides agreed to maintain stable relations. But as the protests show, politicians can’t always predict or control for events. Thus, if Kevin McCarthy, who is likely to become the next U.S. House Speaker, carries out his pledge to visit Taiwan, it may lead to a new bilateral crisis.
The quest for stable U.S.-China relations no doubt accounted for Mr. Biden’s silence when protests erupted in China the week after the summit. On Nov. 28, a reporter asked John Kirby, the National Security Council co-ordinator at the White House, what the President’s message would be to China’s peaceful protesters.
“Our message to peaceful protesters around the world is the same and consistent,” he replied. “People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with.”
The reporter then asked: “Does the White House support their efforts to … regain personal freedoms in light of these lockdowns?”
“The White House supports the right of peaceful protest,” Mr. Kirby responded, again sticking to the tightly scripted line.
Despite this American restraint, China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a statement on Nov. 29 that alleged “infiltration and sabotage efforts by hostile forces” and called for a crackdown on the protests. That day, security forces flooded the streets of major cities to make it difficult, if not impossible, for demonstrators to gather. The Cyberspace Administration of China also called for censorship to be moved to “the highest level of content management.”
Protesters rejected the allegations of foreign involvement. One video showed a Beijing student responding to the accusation by asking whether the foreign forces might be Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, beloved figures among the Communist Party leadership. Students made up a significant percentage of the protesters, and so to extinguish the hotbeds of protests, universities sent students home before the semester was over.
But perhaps the most effective step to tamp down the protests was a seeming willingness by the government to back down. Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan on Nov. 30 said that the virus now posed a reduced threat, and the country faced a “new reality.” Some local authorities loosened COVID-19 measures.
On Dec. 1, Ms. Sun said that the country should “prioritize stability while pursuing progress … to optimize the COVID policy.” But even as officials were taking a milder tone, police in many cities were knocking on doors and detaining those who took part in the demonstrations, The Washington Post reported.
In the long run, the Communist Party is not going to let the people think that it is weak and can be opposed at will. But no one knows when a fire or bus accident may trigger popular unrest again. The recent protests show that maintaining stable U.S.-China ties isn’t easy, as domestic events in China – or in the United States – can easily affect the relationship.
After all, as Mao Zedong used to say: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.”