China at a crossroads: Confronting COVID limitations

China at a crossroads: Confronting COVID limitations

The deadly Urumqi fire prompted widespread resistance in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai reflecting growing public impatience. Resistance against China’s persistent and unyielding pandemic controls broke out in Shanghai and other major cities as well as in universities last week which was described as an acid test for the leadership of Xi Jinping and his zero-Covid policy.

Xi Jinping secured a historic third term as China’s leader on Sunday. He promoted some of his closest Communist Party allies, cementing his position as the nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party elected Xi as its general secretary for another five-year term, Xinhua reported, tilting the country decisively back towards one-man rule after decades of power-sharing among its elite.

“I wish to thank the whole party sincerely for the trust you have placed in us,” Xi told journalists at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People after the closed-door vote was announced.

He promised to work diligently in the performance of his duties to prove worthy of the faith and trust placed in him by the party. Xi was also reappointed as head of China’s Central Military Commission.

The 69-year-old is now all but certain to sail through to a third term as China’s president, due to be formally announced during the government’s annual legislative session in March.

However, XI’s zero-Covid policy has negatively affected him, in the long run, owing to demands for an end to the harsh lockdowns and arbitrary controls of the country’s “zero-Covid” policy.

The “Economist” said the protests represent a broad-based and diverse bellow of frustration of a sort very rarely heard in China. Though not all protests are explicitly political, they are an unmistakable rebuke to President Xi Jinping, hailed by state media as “commander in chief of the people’s war against COVID”.

Many people are increasingly fed up with that war. The latest trigger came on November 24th. It was caused by a fire that engulfed an apartment block in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, which killed at least ten people and injured nine others. Local residents claimed that doorways and fire exits in the building were sealed to control COVID. Officials in Urumqi denied this. “Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak…and they failed to escape,” explained the head of the fire brigade, causing yet more anger.

Open insolence is rare in China, especially directed at the central government and the ruling Communist Party.

The only stiff resistance campaign by the people that anyone would remember vividly is the Tiananmen Square protest that took place back in 1989.

The Tiananmen Square incident or June Fourth incident, also known as the 6/4 incident, was a series of protests and demonstrations in China during the spring of 1989. It culminated in a government crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 3 and 4.

Many people were reminiscent of those historic events that caused irreparable damage to China’s human rights record.

Coming back to the Covid restrictions imposed throughout the country it was observed that many parts of the country were incensed and resentful after Xi got re-elected to a third term at the party’s national congress in contravention of the party’s norms, making him China’s most powerful leader after decades.

The protests were triggered following a deadly residential fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, on Thursday, which left 10 dead and a similar number injured. The South China Morning Post reported.

Many people expressed their anger over the tragedy and there was widespread fury over the internet since many believed Covid limitations prevented people from fleeing. However, this was discounted by local officials.

According to agency reports, the zero-Covid policy, which included lockdowns that continued to endanger the global supply chain at a time when recession fears loomed over economies worldwide, has stifled the world’s second-largest economy. These current protests are the most significant display of public resistance to the ruling Communist Party in decades.

Sam Stovall, chief financial analyst at CFRA (Centre for Financial Research and Analysis) said that the upheaval fueled concerns on Wall Street that if Xi tightens his crackdown on dissidents there or enhances the lockdowns, it may undermine China’s economy and harms oil prices and global economic growth.

Meanwhile the next day following the tragedy, hundreds of angry residents took to Urumqi’s streets demanding an end to the lockdown. This has barred 4 million residents from leaving their homes for 100 days.

Though authorities in Xinjiang broadcast on Saturday that Coronavirus restrictions would be lifted “in phases” the undertakings failed to halt protests spreading to the country’s most affluent cities and among young students, underlining the growing public impatience and grievances nearly three years into the pandemic.

In Beijing and elsewhere, residents gathered to confront local authorities over restrictive measures and repeated COVID tests. Many small vigils and protests were also reportedly held at universities in Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Chongqing, Chengdu, Wuhan and other cities.

Many protests could not be immediately confirmed or independently verified media reports said..

One video posted online appeared to show Beijing residents in an unidentified part of the capital marching around an open-air car park on Saturday, shouting “End the lockdown!”

According to reports and videos posted on Twitter and other social media sites, a few hundred students gathered at Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater, on Sunday afternoon, chanting “Democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression”.

Peking University students also protested over the weekend, painting slogans on building walls including “We want freedom, not lockdowns” and “Dynamic zero-Covid is a lie” – all while singing “The Internationale” in front of a group of uniformed security guards.

Videos showed the slogans had been removed by university authorities when students returned and held another protest the next day.

Another viral video showed hundreds of students at the Communication University of China, Nanjing holding up sheets of white paper and chanting “Long live the people, may the dead rest in peace”, at a vigil for the victims of the Xinjiang fire.

When students refused to disperse at the request of teachers, a university official could be heard warning that “one day you will pay for what you did today”.

The largest protest occurred in Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub. About 300 residents gathered in the early hours of Sunday on Middle Wulumuqi Road – which borrows its name from Urumqi.

In memory of the Xinjiang victims, they brought flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace” and shouting “Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China”, according to a widely circulated video clip.

Fresh protests broke out in Shanghai late on Sunday afternoon and continued into the night. Police started to set barriers and seal off intersections on Anfu and Wuyuan roads before 5 pm but more people gathered.

They sang China’s national anthem and “The Internationale” and shouted slogans such as “People’s police are for the people”, “Release the detained” and “Long live the people”.

Witnesses told that some were taken away by police as the protest was broken up, but the detainees were not necessarily those who shouted slogans.

Still, about 500 people, mostly in their twenties, gathered at the intersection of Changshu and Wuyuan roads in the evening, with about 10 holding up white papers and slogans to protest against the zero-Covid policy.

“We did nothing wrong and we were just here to express our own opinion,” said one woman who led the crowd to sing the national anthem. “They do not even give us freedom of speech. Our voices should be heard.”

Police officers tried to disperse the crowd. “Get home and watch the FIFA World Cup game now,” one officer said. “Do not waste your energy here and go back to enjoy your life.”

Violence erupted at the world’s largest iPhone factory over benefits and Covid-19 controls. Similar protests also broke out in Wuhan and Chengdu over the weekend according to social media outlets.

In recent weeks, protests have erupted in Guangdong, Zhengzhou, Lhasa and other cities, with participants asking for an end to prolonged lockdowns and Covid tests.

Residents in Lanzhou smashed testing booths and Covid staff tents on Saturday las t week, complaining about being put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive, according to Reuters.

While there were moves underway to ease public discontent with a series of revised rules early this month, such as shortening quarantine times for inbound travellers etc, there was hardly any or no plan by the central government to relax its zero-Covid policy.

On Sunday, People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, vowed in a front-page commentary to “unwaveringly” stick with existing controls.

In remarks that appeared to aim at widespread doubts and dissatisfaction, it again touted the country’s victory in controlling the pandemic so far and called on party cadres at all levels to “resolutely overcome misunderstandings”, slackness and “war weariness”.

Chinese Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan while on a visit last week urged Chongqing authorities to “try their best to contain the Covid-19 outbreak” and return life back to normal “as quickly as possible”, according to state media.

China on Sunday reported a fourth straight day of record cases. As many as 412 million people were affected by lockdown measures in mainland China, according to Nomura, a Japanese brokerage. This was up from 340 million the week before, amid predictions by economists about a contraction of China’s GDP this quarter.

The protests were an obvious sign that the Chinese people were demanding enhanced freedom and a return to democracy and the rule of law. This will pose a significant challenge to President Xi Jinping in the foreseeable future.

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