Roger Garside is a former British diplomat and author of China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom.
A perfect storm is brewing in China, and I predict it will break in 2023. If I am proven right, it will destroy President Xi Jinping, and bring an end to the political system he is determined to defend. Speaking to journalists on Dec. 7, the Chinese ambassador to France likened the wave of protests in China last month to the “colour revolutions” that have threatened or overturned governments in Soviet Eurasia and the Middle East in recent decades. He said they “smelled of a colour revolution.” Referring to the blank sheets of paper displayed by Chinese protesters, he commented, “White is a colour, too.”
The revolutionary storm is brewing because the economy is in deep trouble, the “zero-COVID” strategy has failed, a public health crisis is building and – as a result of that disastrous combination – there has been a widespread loss of confidence in, and respect for, the Communist regime. In traditional language, it has “lost the mandate of Heaven.” The white revolution has begun, but not ended.
The abandonment of the “zero-COVID” strategy has brought a period of calm, but at a very high cost both in political and public health terms. Never before in the history of the People’s Republic has there been such a manifestation of weakness in the face of public demand. Moreover, protests against COVID-19 restrictions were accompanied by calls for the Communist Party to surrender its power and denunciation of its leader as a “national traitor,” both unprecedented since 1949. In public health terms, the abandonment of the strategy threatens to be disastrous because the COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed without essential preparation in terms of vaccination, strengthening of public health infrastructure (such as intensive care units) or the psychological preparation of the nation.
The implementation of onerous COVID-19 restrictions brought home to the mass of ordinary citizens, who were making no political demands and had done nothing to deserve punishment, the essential inhumanity of the regime.
Leading public health experts in China and abroad have predicted that there will be a surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths between now and the end of March, with particularly tragic consequences for the elderly. Demand for intensive care beds will outstrip supply by 10 times. There is much policy confusion. The regime is trying to cover up the pandemic by both suppressing and falsifying statistics. At the party congress only a few weeks ago, Mr. Xi lauded his “zero-COVID” policy and the “all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus,” but now the regime is likening this virus to the common cold. However, as families lose grandparents, they are not deceived. Already in Beijing, crematoria have five-day waiting lists for cremations. A new wave of protests will arise, exceeding in numbers and intensity what we have already seen.
The regime is not only suffering a grave loss of authority but is displaying a crippling incapacity to govern.
It is displaying impotence in the face of grave economic problems, fully documented elsewhere. The dire effects of the debt mountain, COVID-19, the collapse of the property sector and the weakening of international trade have resulted in rising unemployment, the failure of small businesses, a collapse in local-government finances and a slow-moving financial crisis. These problems are hitting a society that has no adequate welfare system.
Xi Jinping is highly skilled at domestic power-play, but his economic, social and geopolitical strategies have proved counterproductive. They are alienating the very people upon whose hard work and enterprise wealth-creation depends. They have turned the world’s most powerful nation from a benign partner into a hostile opponent. Regression and closure have replaced the reform and opening which gave people hope, some freedom and new opportunities in earlier decades.
In place of hope, there is disillusion as manifested by a major movement of emigration that is being led, for the first time in history, by rich and powerful people rather than the poor and powerless. Even Mr Xi’s own daughter has not returned to China after her studies at Harvard.
By their fearless, far-reaching and witty actions, the young protesters in the white revolution crossed a psychological Rubicon. They will never go back.
Most foreign commentators believe that Mr. Xi’s grip on power is unshakable. I disagree. The techno-totalitarian regime ultimately depends on people. Policemen and censors have savings and parents to lose. With a billion mobile phones, a hydra-headed movement can make a powerful impact on world opinion, and violent repression would provoke a reaction from the U.S. far stronger than in 1989. This storm will break in 2023.