On China’s COVID Protests

On China’s COVID Protests November 29, 2022

It’s not just China but The “People’s” Republic of China.  It was supposedly born out of a revolution of the working class, in which the “masses” rose up to overthrow the ruling class.  Funny thing, though.  Communism may have its beginnings as a populist movement, but once the revolution takes place, the “people” are put under restrictions like never before.  But, as tyrants eventually learn, the people can only be pushed down so far until they rise up.

China, under President and Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping, has adopted a “no COVID” policy.  Any outbreak results in brutal lockdowns of apartment buildings, factories, cities, and regions.  We had a taste of that in the early phase of the epidemic, but locking down is no metaphor in China takes, as people infected with or exposed to the disease are literally locked into their homes.

Even now, long after the rest of the world has moved on from such restrictions and even after the Omicron variant now dominant is proving much less dangerous than the earlier varieties, China has become more strict than ever.  There have only been six deaths from COVID in the last six months out of tens of thousands of cases in a nation of 1.4 billion.  But Chairman Xi has demanded that there be no cases at all.

The populace has been chafing over the heavy handed quarantines.  Loved ones are dying not from COVID but from the lockdowns, as caregivers are prevented from caring for aging parents and ambulances are prevented from going into infected areas.  Last week at the world’s largest iPhone factory--where your iPhone was probably made if you have one–some 200,000 workers blew up, with some fleeing the plant due to rumors of a COVID outbreak, knowing that they wouldn’t be allowed to go home, and others protesting living conditions in make-shift dormitories they were forced to live in.  When the promised hazard pay didn’t come through, the protests turned to rioting.

But then, across the country, all Hell broke loose.  In the city of Urumqi residents have been prevented from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.  Last Thursday, a fire broke out in an apartment building.  Blockades and quarantine enforcers in hazmat suits delayed firefighters from getting to the fire.  And residents of the building were unable to escape because the doors had been locked from the outside.  As a result, ten people perished in the fire.

As accounts of the fire and videos of the enforcers hindering rescuers spread on social media, protests broke out–in the city, in the region, in universities across the country, and in towns and cities everywhere–as thousands of Chinese citizens poured into the streets in defiance of both the lockdowns and the government, which has a history of brutally crushing all dissent.

But the demonstrations soon went beyond just protesting the COVID restrictions.  In Shanghai, China’s largest city, protesters chanted “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!”  They set up memorials of candles, flowers, and placards and held up blank sheets of paper, which has become a symbol of censorship.  (Censored Americans may want to use that.)  They chanted, “Need human rights, need freedom.”  And “Don’t want Covid test, want freedom!” And “Don’t want dictatorship, want democracy!”

Comments the UK Daily Mail in a heavily-illustrated account of the protests,  “Every of these slogans is enough to send a person to jail for 10 years.”  The people chanted the slogans anyway.

Perhaps the protests will blow over.  Perhaps they will be crushed and the chanters will be identified from the videos and imprisoned for ten years.  But perhaps not.

Mass popular uprisings like this one recall the overthrow of communism in the Soviet Union.  The government did try to crush the rebellion, but the military forces, with their guns and tanks, refused to fire upon their fellow citizens and joined the revolt.  While that was going on, China had a popular uprising of its own, but the military obeyed and did the government’s dirty work.

We’ll have to see what happens this time.  Perhaps the government will make some concessions on the issue, easing the lockdowns.  But such concessions often raise expectations and lead to other kinds of changes, as the people see that the government can be forced to do their bidding.  Reportedly, the government has flooded protest zones with security personnel, emptying the streets for now.  But the knowledge that a seething, angry mass of citizens who yearn for freedom exists under the surface can only be unsetting for the communist rulers.

Some American progressives have been looking fondly at Chinese authoritarianism (see here and here and here) for being able to “get things done” without all of the messy limitations on government imposed by a free society.  Think, for example, of columnist Thomas Friedman’s fantasy of being “China for a day,” in which time the government could solve our environmental and economic problems with impunity.

But governments would do well to fear their people.  Authoritarian governments are especially afraid of their people, which is why they try to control them so completely and try to make them fear their government. But freedom has a way of asserting itself.


Photo from Twitter via Daily Mail

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