What is causing nationwide anti-lockdown protests in China? Since, the fire incident, at an apartment block in Urumqi, Xinjiang that took 10 lives was an immediate catalyst for causing ‘unprecedented dissent’; there is an underlying public anger and frustration over Xi Jinping’s strict ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy. Over three years into the pandemic, prolonged partial lockdowns have compelled many to hit the streets across key provinces and cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan, and elsewhere.
Though protests are common in China, what seems to be happening for the first time in decades are the scale of incidents, area covered and type of demands. Demonstrations on the streets are mainly steered by university students and residents in urban areas. There is also a slight change in their demands, the posters and slogans are more political; in some cases, the nature of protest is violent, dissenters tore down barricades and “pick fights” with officials; and interestingly this time instead of targeting local officials some have directly targeted the Communist Party of China and its General Secretary Xi Jinping. Few have gone to the extent of yelling “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” during a gathering in Shanghai.
Regarding the Party’s potential response there are various views, on whether it would choose to pacify protesters by stepping back on lockdowns or resort to employing a heavy-handed approach. Chinese State media [Xinhua News Agency] argued: “Practices have proven that our [China’s] Covid [preventive] measures can stand the test of history, they are scientific and effective” …. “the updated national-level protocol is the latest example of how China’s anti-COVID efforts are based on science”, further claimed, “It is a fresh example of how China’s current dynamic zero-COVID policy works”. Since all protests are not linked to lockdowns, discretion is important. Without hyping developments and far-fetched political consequences, one should make an effort to understand the politics of protest in China.
Politics of Protest
The Party has a traditional theory that ‘conflicts among the people cause mass incidents’, instead of addressing some local officials’ incompetence to provide [economic and social] stability in the first place. Party leadership consider “mass group incidents” [Qúntǐ xìngshìjiàn: 群体性事件] as a threat to public security, rather a political challenge. Thus, there is little tolerance towards mass demonstrations.
The Party notes seven ‘basic characteristics’ of mass incidents: the ‘increasing numbers, expanding size’, ‘increasing range of industries involved and diversification of main constituents’, ‘intense behaviour and increasingly serious threats’, ‘clear increase in the degree of organisation’, ‘clearly repetitive in nature’, ‘multiple issues intertwine and handling is increasingly difficult’, and ‘relative concentration in the regions and industries where mass incidents occur’.
Speaking of such incidents, Former General Secretary Jiang Zemin proposed that “correctly handling the conflicts among the people in the new period is a comprehensive issue involving reforms, development, and stability”. It continues to be a key narrative coming from the government and media; and, is indistinguishable from domestic politics.
In comparison, Xi Jinping subscribes to “mass prevention and mass governance” [Qunfang Qunzhi] networks – meaning people themselves are responsible to look after their social and political governance by gathering and controlling, which in principle is similar to Mao’s “Fēngqiáo model” of mass campaigns. The “Four Clean-ups”campaign promoted public “denunciation rallies” and targeted ‘organisations and ideology of reactionary elements’. Xi readjustsed the original Zhejiang’s “Fengqiao model”, in practice Party follows the ‘old-new tools for managing contradictions’, as Xi put it as a ‘model solution’ in 20th Party Congress 2022.
Central Leadership vs Local Cadre
The central Party organs give targets and regulations to the local cadre about reducing mass incidents and their intensity and frequency. The Party does not find a problem or fault lines in its policy; but if they do, the general narrative is that the local interpretation and implementation has a problem.
Domestic governance in China operates on a rule book, where power and authority are centralised, and responsibilities and targets are decentralised. All local failures are (local) administrative failures rather than (central) policy failures. The inability to limit the problem to local clusters is always a local issue. Implementation and interpretation of central directions are a matter of local administration. Failure to prevent large-scale protests has political consequences for the local cadre.
One, regarding negative press on Party’s image, it has strict punishments and rewards system for local cadre, officials and the general public. In particular, if an issue has consequences for the central Party leadership, the blame for policy failure would naturally direct toward the local leadership. In most cases, it has been presented as administrative failures rather than any policy lapse, and tens of officials were sacked, e.g., school buildings collapse case during the 2008 Sichuan/Wenchuan Earthquake; violent protests during the 2008 Beijing Olympics; or the recent zero-Covid mismanagement.
Precisely, on corruption issues, they are locally termed “tigers and flies”. Apparent political motives behind strict actions have been rigorously debated due to a smaller number of officials from “princelings” or “red second generation” targeted. Some popular terms used in most political corruption cases are “positive change”, “institution-building”, “common prosperity”, social justice, governance, stability maintenance, “clean-up”, “Shuanggui”, political “purge”, “fractional warfare”, new “gang of four” [Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua, and Xu Caihou], guanxi, ‘commoner’ background, and “reducing elder influence”.
Two, central leadership gives abstract directions and targets to local leaders, failure to comply and show results would reflect their professional growth. Usually, the content of such directions is ensuring ‘social stability’, tighten restrictions, contribute to the economy’s resilience, ‘static management’, ‘combat’, ‘resolutely defeating’, or “mobilise all resources”. Such phrases appeared in Covid-19 prevention guidelines. However, local leaders have a degree of autonomy on what methods they wish to employ. The fear of losing the mandate of central leadership makes local Party officials rush things, oftentimes fake numbers to give an impression that the issue has been resolved.
Social Stability vs Social Restrictions
Two types of restrictions employed are preventive and responsive measures. The former includes private solutions and surveillance with the Social Credit System (SCS), and the latter comprises fines, re-education and censorship. The politics of dissent is linked to the dynamics of central Party leadership and local cadre relations.
Private Solutions: for Party, the available channels to redress the masses’ grievances are through private solutions. Petitions and complaints are Party’s favoured approaches. Chinese moderately use their ‘Rightful Resistance’ with formal mediums of local Party officials and courts to get justice for private grievances.
Surveillance: political systems like China rely too much on constant, indiscriminate monitoring of their subjects’ public and social life. Surveillance is not just a tool but also a preferred means of controlling the masses. Besides, the 2003 pilot project of the ‘Social Credit System’ has been rolled out since 2014, through the institutionalisation of SCS, moderating people’s behaviour and preferences became a key preventive measure. Violators with lower credit scores would have to live with disadvantages in government and commercial benefits.
Fines: issues such as indiscriminate fees, fines, and apportionments are used as administrative management measures. As fine culture continues it caused protests. Incidents related to taxi fee hike and e-bike prohibition in city centres motivate people to petition, strikes, and protests.
Re-education: in China, mass public arrest and detention happen very rarely, and forceful detentions are used at the stage when Party believes it has exhausted all options. It was to avoid a negative image of the Party and the Public Security Bureau. Party relies on various methods before the arrest, identifying leaders, cutting communication, restricting mobilisation, scaling down local media, and eventually bringing numbers to a few and isolating them. As Party believes it lags in convincing the masses, re-educating has been the primary focus of local propaganda and education work departments to reduce the negative effect and strong opposition from the masses.
Censorship: it is fairly complex to frame a case of suppression of dissent, as China has a tradition of restricting the use of words like “protest” and “resistance”. The taboo over such terms has impacted wider acceptance of the use of “mass incidents”, while others prefer Tao Ge Shou fa (seek fair accounting) as they count it as “band together and go”. Online reactions are the most authoritative and empirical evidence of how Chinese people react to restrictions and are a popular platform for social organisation.
Weibo is a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform where such reactions can be noticed. Most trended keywords in the recent past are labour [劳动: Láodòng], corruption [腐败: Fǔbài], housing [住房: Zhùfáng] and women [女性: Nǚxìng]. Related to Covid-19, frequent trending stories are anti-epidemic staff breaking into homes, monitoring wristbands, typo of “Next Five Years” of “Zero Covid Policy”, lockdown [封锁: fēngsuǒ], abrupt changes in health QR codes, “Normalised” nucleic acid tests, and ‘Bubble-Style Management’.
Online protests have some disadvantages and consequences; when a sensitive issue is trending on social media, Chinese officials usually instruct the IT staff of companies to restrict trending words and remove content from the platform. In many cases, officials sought to find early individual posts; if they found content lacked political correctness, they sought public apologies on the same platform where it went viral.
Xi Jinping has focused his China Model central On Governance; one of the key elements, the rule of law, has found newfound interest. However, the overwhelming role of the Party in the executive and judiciary is here to stay. Post announcement of restrictions, local officials find and detain protesters and seek public apology that they disrupted ‘social order’ and ‘social stability’. If protesters take violent acts, officials change the offence of ‘undermine China’s socialist system’, an offence under national security law. The failure to identify and take effective measures on the problem cost many deputies, local party chiefs, and secretaries. In all these cases, provincial chiefs and local party officials were the first to face heat.
*State Council Information Office PRC, “Fighting COVID-19: China in Action”, Xinhua, 07 June 2021, URL: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-06/07/c_139120424.htm.
Nectar Gan, “Protests erupt across China in unprecedented challenge to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy”, CNN, 28 November 2022, URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/11/26/china/china-protests-xinjiang-fire-shanghai-intl-hnk/index.html.
*Xinhua, “Beijing bans barricading gates for COVID-19 control”, 27 November 2022, URL: https://english.news.cn/20221127/83d8d73cdd204e3e93682d0361ac357c/c.html.
*Xinhua, “Fine-tuning COVID response measures accentuates China’s people-centered philosophy”, 25 November 2022, URL: https://english.news.cn/20221125/914fac197ee34f64a8f747492225b365/c.html.
*China Consulate General, Durban, “Dynamic zero-COVID: a MUST approach for China”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 15 July 2022, URL: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zwjg_665342/zwbd_665378/202207/t20220715_10722096.html.
*Xinhua, “What would happen if China gives up current dynamic zero-COVID policy”, 30 September 2022, URL: http://english.news.cn/20220930/efb2738cdbb14e4db7e309d7545ea91f/c.html.
*Ministry of Public Security, “Comprehensive Research Report on China’s Current Issue of Mass Incidents Caused by Conflicts Among the People”, Chinese Law and Government, 2019, 51(1), 6-27.
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*National People’s Congress, “Outline of the People’s Republic of China 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and Long-Range Objectives for 2035”, March 2021, Center for Security and Emerging Technology, URL: https://cset.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/t0284_14th_Five_Year_Plan_EN.pdf.
 The Economist, “How Xi Jinping is mobilising the masses to control themselves”, 10 November 2022, URL: https://www.economist.com/china/2022/11/10/how-xi-jinping-is-mobilising-the-masses-to-control-themselves.
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