By Kalpit A Mankikar
The splendour of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crowning moment where he wangled a third term during the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the rising protests by demonstrators calling an end to his signature zero-COVIDstrategy and even seeking his ouster are a study in contrast. As Xi commences his third term in office, he is confronted with a virulent resurgence of the pandemic, which has kicked in lockdowns in cities, and simmering discontent that has led to protests in universities across the nation.
Misreading the national mood
In addition to the diminishing social acceptance of lockdowns, a series of accidents that are directly related to China’s zero-COVID strategy have brought public anger to a boil. The latest was the tragedy on 24 November in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province, where at least 10 people died in a building blaze. Social media posts posited that the barriers and grilles placed to curb movement had hampered the firefighters’ access and rescue operations, thus, sparking protests in the city. There were reports from different parts of China on confrontations between the authorities and the local residents when these grilles were being installed on doorways of apartment blocks, indicating that low-level resistance towards the severe restrictions enforced by the COVID-combat strategy was building up.
In September, a road accident turned the attention to some of the unpleasant aspects of the COVID curbs. Nearly 30 people died after a bus transporting people from Guiyang (Guizhou province’s capital) to a quarantine centre toppled. As the journey had been arranged in the dead of the night, it sparked speculation regarding the motives: Was it being done clandestinely to keep cases in the provincial capital down? Previously, in some regions when the situation deteriorated, the Beijing leadership often dispatched senior observers to conduct inspections. Since the incident took place ahead of the 20th Party Congress, were the provincial officials bussing out people to meet internal targets regarding community spread set by the Beijing leadership? Besides, the impact of lockdown and sequestering people arbitrarily and over long lengths of time is known to affect mental health. In this regard, China’s worst aviation disaster in recent years may hold the key. What were the circumstances surrounding the plane crash in March in which more than 100 flyers perished? Were there political motives or did the lockdown-induced mental health issues cause the pilot to intentionally crash it? It is possible that these tragic incidents may not have weighed the assessment of the Beijing leadership, but each of them compounded by a lack of official clarifications and apathy seem to have gradually played a role in igniting dissent against the COVID-combat strategy.
If this was not enough, there is a surfeit of bad news in store on the economy front. The official data, which was released after the 20th Party Congress to save the CPC’s blushes, showed that the GDP grew by 3.9 percent in the third quarter. According to some estimates, the Party may not meet its growth target of 5.5 percent this year. China is facing headwind on the economic front with the US taking steps to deny China access to technology and capital. In the midst of this, the labour unrest at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant, came as a bad advertisement for China’s economy. Workers at the world’s largest iPhone factory, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of its production, clashed with security personnel due to the strict COVID restrictions. Sure enough, Apple stocks have taken a hit on account of the labourers’ agitation and consequent apprehension that it may affect the production of handsets. Due to this, investors will mostly likely pile pressure on the company to review the excessive reliance on China in its supply chain. If a market leader like Apple decides to review its China dependency in its supply chain, then there may be a chain reaction from other corporates.
Limitations of propaganda and coercion
Xi began his third term in office by taking a leaf from Mao’s book and stroking nationalism to rally the youth. It started with the new ruling elite making a trek to Yan’an, which was the bastion of the communists from the mid-1930s to 1949. Xi also visited the Hongqi Canal, which is a symbol of the achievements of workers in the Mao era. He urged youngsters to emulate the Hongqi Canal spirit, which emphasises the importance of hard work. Earlier in his work report to the Party, Xi held out the promise of national rejuvenation, which is essentially restoring China to greatness, but also warned of attempts by external forces to contain its rise. The current wave of protests has shown that there may be diminishing returns in using struggles of the yesteryears to shore up youth morale. China is combating the protests by increasing security presence. There are again limitations to this approach as evidenced from the protesters who hit the streets after some rural banks barred access to their savings. Thus today, as China’s youth fear for their future, they are standing up against such oppression.
In the current scenario, Xi is presented with a classic zugzwang on the Chinese chessboard. Xi will have to react, but any step ahead may queer the pitch. Any relaxation may be seen as a sign of weakness and embolden protesters, but responding with repression may further aggravate the situation. Thus, the three pillars—propaganda, violence, and economic successes—that keep the CPC in power are tottering.
The exuberance of an unprecedented victory can sometimes blind many, even a seasoned leader. After getting a shot at power for the third time, Xi, who had shunned foreign visits for long, has re-emerged on the world stage with his recent trips to Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit after the G20 conclave in Indonesia. It may serve him well to remember the fate of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, who had greatly centralised personal power but ended up being ousted by different factions, the army, and his own Communist Party colleagues. Xi must remember that nothing lasts forever.