Analysis: Protests in China highlight Xi’s COVID policy dilemma: roll back or not

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By Yew Lun Tian and Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Rare street protests that erupted in cities across China over the weekend were a referendum against President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy and the strongest public challenge during his political career, officials said. Chinese analysts.

Not since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 have so many Chinese risked arrest and other repercussions to take to the streets over a single issue.

“During Xi Jinping’s 10 years in power, these are the most public and most widespread displays of anger by citizens against government policy,” said Bates Gill, a China expert at Asia Society.

Public dissatisfaction with Xi’s zero-COVID policy, expressed on social media or offline in the form of poster-posting at universities or protests, is Xi’s biggest internal challenge since the 2019 protests in Hong Kong against a bill on extradition.

Xi had claimed personal responsibility for leading the “war” against COVID-19, justified zero-COVID with the need to “put people above everything”, and counted his “correct” COVID policy among his political achievements when he sought a third party to break previous mandates at the 20th Communist Party Congress in October.

Nearly three years into the pandemic, China says its policies aren’t geared towards zero cases all the time, but instead are about “dynamic” action when cases emerge.

While the protests are embarrassing for Xi, they come nowhere near to overthrowing him, analysts say, because he is in full control of the party, army, security and propaganda machine.


While some protesters chanted “Down with Xi Jinping, down with the Communist Party of China,” most other people were concerned only with resisting having their housing estates locked down or being exempt from frequent testing for the virus.

“Once these self-interests are met, most people will be appeased and leave,” said Chen Daoyin, a former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law who is now a commentator based in Chile.

The students weren’t highly organized or led by a central figure, Chen said. Protests took place in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chengdu and Urumqi.

At the time of the Tiananmen protests and the crackdown by the Chinese authorities, the last time the demonstrations led to the replacement of the party general secretary, there were internal divisions among the party leaders over how to handle the crisis and which path to take in the future for China .

This is not the case with Xi. With the Congress, Xi renewed his tenure as party leader and military commander-in-chief and placed his acolytes in all important party positions. Leaders who have previously expressed contrarian views or governed in a style different from him have been marginalized.

While this authoritarian arrangement has allowed Xi to be more powerful, it also contains vulnerabilities, as evidenced by the protests, analysts said.

“Surrounding himself only with people saying the things he likes to hear, Xi traps himself in an echo chamber, which may have led him to underestimate or be out of touch with how many people have suffered as a result of his COVID policy,” he said Lance Gore, China expert at the East Asian Institute in Singapore.


The protests amplify what has been a difficult situation for Xi: how to step back from a policy that was initially a point of pride but is becoming a growing responsibility.

Were it to bow to public pressure and roll back to zero-COVID, it would look weak, which could encourage people to take to the streets in the future whenever they want change.

“If he lets go, it would mean that his past zero-COVID policy has completely failed and he would have to take responsibility for it. This makes him lose face,” said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights activist, lawyer and scholar.

It is not in Xi’s character to give in, analysts said.

Xi stressed the need to prevent a “color revolution,” or anti-government protests, recently when he spoke at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan in September. He also lamented in a closed-door speech that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed because no one was “man enough” to rise to the challenge.

If it were to change course on its COVID-19 policy before China was prepared, it could lead to widespread disease, death and an overwhelmed medical system, hard-to-swallow consequences.

But if he steels himself before finding a way to declare victory and roll back, he risks increasing the anger of an increasingly fed-up citizenry as economic growth sputters.

Xi tried tweaking the zero-COVID policy with the release of “20 measures” last month in a bid to standardize prevention measures nationwide and make them friendlier to residents and the economy.

But since Xi hasn’t officially given up on the need to curb all outbreaks, many local authorities are still erring on the side of caution and implementing stricter lockdowns and quarantine rules than set out in the “20 Measures.”

“At this stage they seem to be clueless,” said Willy Lam, a senior member of the Jamestown Foundation.

“On the one hand, Xi Jinping and his faction appeared to be omnipotent. But at the same time, … we see a complete lack of response from the new administration.”

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by Grant McCool)

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