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In the last few months, there have been a few major protests in China, such as the one in Chongqing at an antigen kit-making factory over major layoffs and wage cuts and nationwide protests over the government’s stringent zero-Covid policy. The zero Covid policy imposed by the Communist Party of China (CPC) was in the news throughout the world and several Chinese cities witnessed a series of protests as retaliation against this policy. The major centres of protests were Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangzhou.
Some of the prominent universities where students were seen protesting are Peking University and Tsinghua University. Student protests have a significant place in China. China has a history of students participating in important landmark protests like the May 4th Movement of 1919, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. The elite campuses of China, like Beijing University and Tsinghua University are also important academic institutions where renowned leaders have studied.
However, it is a known fact that China has been witnessing a huge number of protests every year. Chinese people have always used protests to express their discontent and at times anger towards the policies and programmes of the CPC and government. But since Xi Jinping has come to power, the CPC’s patience towards people’s protests is waning. As China is a politically communist system, the legal process is still not as strong or vibrant as they are in any democratic system. Due to this, people tend to resort to protests as the only effective mode to express their grievances as well as to attract the central leadership’s attention. China has witnessed a huge number of protests in the last two decades. However, the central leadership is generally sacrosanct and has never been in the direct focus of the people’s protests and most of the anger and even punishment is directed towards the provisional leadership.
Thus, one can conclude that protests are not a new phenomenon for the CPC. However, the protests against the zero Covid policy became significant because they were seen as challenging the Chinese central leadership. The calls and shouts for Xi to step down and more political freedom were directly challenging the central leadership. The fact that people were calling for a change in the central leadership underscores their distrust in the capacity of the leaders to continue being in power. The CCP can perceive it as a challenge to the legitimacy of the party to continue ruling China.
The zero Covid policy had resulted in large protests in Shanghai in December 2022.These were followed by more protests across various other Chinese cities. The spread of the protests and their intensity has made many people compare these with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which constituted a major student-led movement directed against the central leadership. This student-led movement was against the rising inequalities, corruption, and inflation, which resulted from the reforms and opening up of the economy introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. As a result of these reforms, China was facing a number of economic and domestic challenges. However, the CPC under Deng Xiaoping decided to control these protests by declaring martial law and use of violence.
For the recent protests, the spark seems to have emerged from the death of ten people in the Urumqi fire, a city that was in lockdown for more than three months. This added to the strong feelings against the zero-Covid policies, which has derailed the lives of people and have put the majority of the Chinese population in lockdown. Chinese people were struggling to attain basic necessities as well as suffering major health issues. A large number of people also lost jobs in just the first few months of 2020.
Another major factor that makes these protests pertinent is that they broke out only a few weeks after the 20th Party Congress in which Xi Jinping secured a third term as President. This has elevated his position within the party and government to that of a strong leader, putting him in the ranks of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. However, as a strong leader, it is also speculated that Xi has the capacity to bring back the politics and culture of cult personality. This is something which the Chinese people and the CPC would not like to face.
There have been reports of the Chinese government ordering the police to search people’s phones to check for banned apps. They have also summoned people for questioning and, at times kept them for hours. Such techniques are being employed to monitor the people who may have been involved in the protests. The government may also have deployed technologies to track people through cell phone towers near the protest sites. Such technologies make it easier for the government to screen the people continuously.
The CPC had earlier used technologies like WeChat to control the spread of the Covid 19 virus. It is easier for the Chinese government today to do this with the help of CCTV cameras as well as cell phones. People in China are required to provide authentic documents for the purchase of internet service and cell phones. In addition to this, China has a social credit system that helps the government to monitor its population’s behaviour. This is a clear indication of what the CPC is capable of in order to manage any chances of future protests and also punish the people who would have been directly involved in the recent protests,  questioning the legitimacy of the party.
The reality of today is that the Chinese government has a vast network of cameras and censorship tools, which helps the government to curb any spark of protest in its bud. The control is so expansive that the people in China need a lot of courage to decide to participate in any kind of protest. Given these circumstances, the protests actually amount to a show of great courage as well as indicate the deepening discontent among the people. The Covid 19 pandemic has further added to the existing woos of the common Chinese citizens. In the words of Ho-fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, “The whole situation is reflecting that the party and the people are trying to seek a new equilibrium, and there will be some instability in the process.”
Even though, as a response to the protests, the government has eased the strong restrictions and zero-Covid policy, a win for the people, the Chinese government is committed to maintaining stability and can go to any extent to achieve that. The use of the military to suppress the 1989 student protests is a potent reminder of what the CPC is capable of. Today the CPC has employed every possible tool in its box to achieve the goal of stability. The major tussle today is between the aspirations of the Chinese people and the CPC’s stability and dominance, one of more political freedom and the other of continuing political control respectively.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.