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China Protests: The party-state can’t be underestimated — neither can the Chinese people

While the Chinese party-state has, until now, been able to subdue or prevent protests using traditional means as well as new technology, protestors in the past have also been wary of embarrassing either the CCP or the central government. The latest protests are, therefore, astonishing precisely because they undermine these long-standing trends

Alongside traditional methods of coercion, the party-state has increasingly relied on new technologies supporting the control and spread of information as well as blanket surveillance and facial and other forms of physical recognition to either preempt protests or to go after the “troublemakers”. (Photo: AP)

Mao Zedong once declared that “the outstanding thing” about China’s people “is that they are ‘poor and blank’”. He called it “a good thing” for “poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action and the desire for revolution”. Absolute poverty and economic impoverishment might be things of the past, according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the latest protests across China suggest that its zero-Covid policy is clearly making the people “poor” once again and not just in monetary terms.

These protests against the CCP’s zero-Covid strategy had erupted following a fire last week that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of China’s minority-dominated Xinjiang province. The perception was that it was callous and unthinking enforcement of anti-Covid measures that prevented rescue services from reaching the building in time.

Fatigue with the zero-Covid policy had already reached such levels that its enforcers, the da bai or “big whites” — called so for the white protective overalls they wear – have been regularly subject to physical violence. Where the current protests break the norm in China, of at least the last two decades and more, is in terms of their scale, their spread and their forthright expression of anti-party views.

China is no stranger to mass protests. A country of its size and complexity could not possibly be administered, no matter how authoritarian the government, if it did not have avenues for the release of pressure, for the venting of public frustration. Thus, the country is often roiled by labour strikes and protests over environmental issues. But Chinese protestors understand enough about the coercive powers of the party-state and its red lines to limit or design their protests in such a way as to not embarrass either the central government or the Communist Party.

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Thus, protests are targeted at the management of a factory, for example, or the local government. The protestors thus offer the central authorities the opportunity to appear responsive to popular sentiment by cracking the whip on the offending local government or agency. Beijing itself uses the opportunity to shift the balance of power vis-à-vis the provinces and local governments ever more in its own favour.

Following the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and the crackdown on the Falun Gong religious sect towards the end of the 1990s, the party-state has also been careful to prevent protests or mass movements organised around a single issue from spreading across cities. This the party-state has achieved by a variety of means. Alongside traditional methods of coercion, it has increasingly relied on new technologies supporting the control and spread of information as well as blanket surveillance and facial and other forms of physical recognition to either preempt protests or to go after the “troublemakers”.

An equally important approach the CCP deployed, especially after Tiananmen, was to co-opt Chinese intellectuals, whom it saw as the only group capable of organising and leading protests against the party. And with notable exceptions, such as the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison, and several courageous lawyer-activists, also all in various stages of incarceration currently, Chinese intellectuals have acquiesced. Those like Wang Huning, currently number four in the Politburo Standing Committee, and seen as CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ideologue-in-chief, in fact, represent the pinnacle of this phenomenon or what the French philosopher Julien Benda termed as the “treason of the intellectuals” — their corruption by and subservience to the state at the expense of the larger good of the people.

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The latest protests are, therefore, astonishing precisely because they represent an undermining of several of the above long-standing trends or certainties of the Chinese party-state.

Shanghai — still limping from a brutal, extended lockdown earlier in the year — saw protests on Wulumuqi (Urumqi) street in solidarity with the victims, who were several thousand miles away, as well as protestors shouting, “CCP, step down! Xi Jinping, step down!”. That such slogans should be heard so soon after the conclusion of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress is particularly noteworthy. While Xi is perceived to have decisively established his personal control over the party and its organs, that is clearly not the same as establishing his sway over the masses.

Meanwhile, students are once again gathering on university campuses, calling for “freedom of expression”, “democracy” and “rule of law”. Anti-Covid slogans have appeared on university walls and the protest anthem, “The Internationale”, has been sung once again at Peking University, one of China’s most elite and politically important universities, and which was at the forefront in the 1989 Tiananmen student protests. It might be noted that there are also other reasons for the youth to feel dissatisfied. Unemployment has reached unprecedented levels in the 16-24 age cohort, while pressure has increased on the young, especially women, to conform once again to traditional Chinese values and to produce more children as a way of making up for the excesses of the one-child policy.

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It is important, however, to not underestimate the CCP’s abilities in times of crisis. It has survived tumult and protests before and of far larger scale and duration. It has done so by employing a degree of nimbleness and adaptation unusual for large political parties that have been in power for long. It has always had a variety of measures at its disposal, ranging from waiting it out and opening channels of negotiation with the protestors to simply and decisively cracking down with violence. The CCP might, therefore, yet win this round against the Chinese people.

At the same time, it is perhaps just as important not to underestimate the Chinese people either. Despite the aforementioned Party-state capacities, including control over news and information through heavy censorship and propaganda, the protests show that the minds of the Chinese people are not blank slates for the party to write on as it wishes.

The writer is Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR

First published on: 01-12-2022 at 16:21 IST
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