Protests in China in response to government restrictions against Covid-19 made headlines around the world last week after an apartment fire in Xinjiang, Urumqi, killed ten people last week.
Many netizens claimed that residents were unable to leave the building as it was partially sealed off, but authorities denied this.
Protesters are reportedly calling for the resignation of President Xi Jinping, the re-elected general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Others criticized the party’s supremacy.
China’s Covid-19 response is one of the strictest in the world as the country continues its containment measures to suppress the virus, a so-called “dynamic zero-Covid” policy.
While the protests certainly pose serious challenges to the authorities, they must be viewed in perspective. So there is no real parallel with the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. This time the demonstrators disperse after marching and protesting and their demands are mostly about restrictions to fight Covid rather than principles. Broader policies.
The key issue here is frustration not only with the Covid measures, but also with their lack of consistency.
State responses should be modest, at least in the short term. There are certainly pressures for change, although it is difficult to predict what will happen.
Protests in China, while almost always issue-focused and highly localized, have become quite common over the past two decades.
Factory workers are protesting non-payment of wages or deteriorating working conditions. Villagers who are forced to move to redevelop their land try to resist, sometimes going so far as to refuse to be moved. Residents of the new housing estates are mobilizing to complain about the lack of roads, businesses and promised services.
These types of claims are usually resolved in a reasonable and timely manner, including through the intervention of government officials who seek to find solutions in the name of maintaining stability.
Challenges to broader principles such as freedom of speech, legal representation, or government accountability may not be immediately resolved. In such cases, the reaction of the authorities is to carry out various repressions.
However, these protests were almost always local and did not lead to a regional or national movement. This applies even to industrial disputes where workers protest in one or more factories of the same brand or ownership.
There is nothing at this stage to show that the current movement is national and organized. But the protesters in each city seem to have been emboldened by protesters in other cities.
A perusal of Chinese social media shows that protesters in Beijing or Shanghai chronicle protests in other cities, while commenting on the underlying causes of, say, Urumqi.
So far, police responses have varied by location. In some places, the police reportedly tolerated the ongoing demonstrations.
But there were reports of altercations elsewhere, as well as several arrests.
Some asymptomatic residents of locked buildings, away from the streets and protests in turn protests.
About 40 students at Beijing’s most prestigious university released a statement on Sunday criticizing the “implementation of the zero-Covid policy”. They acknowledge that zero-Covid measures are increasingly problematic and have led to “terrible tragedies”, while acknowledging the importance and effectiveness of earlier security measures during the pandemic.
They add that “the most pressing task now is to find a temporary regime of coexistence that minimizes the dangers of epidemics while maintaining basic social order and allowing basic economic and subsistence needs to be met.” »
To do this, they suggest five main measures:
“To prevent any abuse of public authority, all regional quarantine blockades must be ended to ensure free movement of all people in communities, villages, divisions and schools. »
“Abolish technical tools such as access codes and mobile phone tracking software to track citizens’ movements [code santé]. Stop blaming certain people or institutions for the spread of the epidemic. Allocate resources to long-term activities such as developing vaccines, medicines and building hospitals. »
“Do voluntary screening [PCR] and voluntary quarantine for undiagnosed and asymptomatic people. »
“Reduce restrictions on the expression of public opinion, allow suggestions and criticisms related to specific problems of the implementation of measures in individual regions. »
“In order to avoid epidemic panic during the transition, honestly disclose the disease data including the number of people infected, the death rate, the long Covid rate. »
The key issue is how to move from the current “dynamic zero-Covid” policy to something else, and even what that “something else” should be, given inadequate healthcare coverage in much of the country.