People’s discontent does not matter much for the Communist government of China as it is in the habit of using brute state power to suppress people’s demonstrations and protests in the most brazen and heartless manner. But if the present people’s protests against “Zero-Covid Policy” are any indication, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can no more remain indifferent to people’s democratic aspirations.
People in China are increasingly getting wary, fed-up and frustrated by Chinese government’s “Zero-Covid” strategy leading to tightening of pandemic restrictions every now and then, at the slightest inkling of the spread of the virus. Around mid-May this year, graduate students at Peking University staged the rare, but peaceful protest over the school’s decision to erect a sheet – metal wall to keep them further sequestered on campus, while allowing the faculty to come and go freely. The discontent was already simmering among students over the regulations prohibiting them from ordering in food or having visitors and daily Covid-19 testing.
A citywide lockdown of Shanghai and expanded restrictions in Beijing in recent weeks have raised questions about the economic and human costs of China’s strict virus controls. Notwithstanding China Communist Party’s frequent claim of success of its Zero-Covid strategy as compared to other nations, most of the Chinese people have grumbled privately or online. At some places, as in Shanghai, residents clashed with police, volunteers and others trying to enforce lockdowns and take infected people to quarantine centres.
Similar kind of resistance and demonstrations were witnessed in other parts of China as well. In the third week of May 2022, students from Tianjin University staged a demonstration against Chinese government’s Covid policy raising anti-administration slogans such as “Down with formalism, Down with bureaucratism”.
The Communist Party of China moves quickly to quash people’s movements and protests, which it sees as a potential challenge to its hold on power. Chinese students, particularly from elite institutions like Peking University have played prominent roles in political movements including the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the 1989 pro-democracy protests
centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square which was crushed by the Chinese army.
Besides students, people from other sections of Chinese society are also suffering by the authoritarian methods adopted by the officials in implementation of Zero-Covid strategy. The strict lockdowns, with most public areas closed down, have played havoc with employment, supply chains and economy in general in China, and are becoming increasingly hard on people. The highly transmissible Omicron variant is posing a greater threat of spreading while China has achieved vaccination for about 51% population only.
In Beijing, authorities restricted more residents to their homes during 3 week-long effort to control a small and persistent Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese capital in the month of May. Seven adjoining areas in the city’s Fengtai district were designated lockdown zones for at least one week, with people ordered to stay at home.
While the other countries in the world have begun “living with the virus”, China’s central leadership remains bound to its Zero-Covid strategy. Citizens in various Chinese cities are struggling to access basic goods, medicines and routine medical care. Most contentious of all has been the separation of children and babies from their parents as part of a policy to quarantine all positive cases in government facilities.
Another worry is that the strict coronavirus controls, including lockdowns, have disrupted the production and undermined the willingness of small and medium firms to hire. Unemployment rate in China, although declined to 5.9% in May 2022 from 6.1% in April, is still high enough to aggravate people’s discontent.
As the ruling CCP continues with large-scale and long-term lockdowns in major cities, mass incarceration in quarantine camps and on university and college campuses, coupled with blanket digital surveillance and control over people’s movements, discontent has begun to emerge. There are still many Zero-Covid loyalists in China, but the voice of dissent against government policy is a new phenomenon which is scary for the authoritarian Chinese government.
Shanghai entrepreneurs in a May 30 Open Letter, called for the release of all political prisoners and for the CCP to begin a process of
political reform at the 20th Party Congress in the year, warning of mass capital flight and widespread loss of public confidence in Xi Jinping’s leadership. The letter also called on the government to overturn the guilty verdicts against entrepreneurs Ren Zhiqiang and Sun Dawu, as well as punishing officials responsible for “violating the law and disregarding public opinion” as part of the Zero-Covid policy and loosening the CCP controls on the media.
The CCP is likely to be compelled to opt for some democratic reforms in near future. The scenes at Tianjin University, Beijing International Studies University and Beijing Normal University has refreshed the memories of 1989 student movement and sent a message to the CCP to rethink about democratic reforms and rule of law to allay brewing public resentment. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese government accommodates people’s democratic aspirations in its upcoming 20th Party Congress or continues with authoritarianism.