It is a cliché about protests in authoritarian societies that they appear unlikely ex ante, inevitable in retrospect, and uncertain in the train of events they unleash. But, based on preliminary assessment, the widespread protests against China’s Covid policy are unprecedented and will test President Xi Jinping’s authority. In all likelihood, the protests will be quelled with a combination of repression and some concessions. But in significant ways these protests have already challenged the authority of Xi.
Protests in China are not new. For years, the Chinese state used protests as a safety valve and an information conduit, a way of identifying fault lines in society and responding to them. Most of those protests did not dent the authority of the Communist Party. They were used to strengthen it. But that strategy had four assumptions.
First, the issues taken up in the protest were usually very specific. Second, they worked in a system of relative decentralisation, where the protests could be taken as an indicator of local performance, while the central leadership could step in as a knight in shining armour. So, traditionally, in surveys, distrust of local government was always much higher than central government. Third, the protest was used as information. But the guiding assumption was that the central leadership had some kind of knowledge authority that was in a position to correct errors. And the fourth, was the ability to control the information order enough to stop any possible contagion effects.
All four assumptions are being tested in these protests. The first is harder to gauge. The protests are ostensibly against Covid policies. In some places they are becoming a magnet for other grievances including labour rights and curbs on freedom. But we have to be very cautious in assessing the scale and grammar of these protests. But the fact that China has become more centralised is a problem for Xi. Though local governments institute region-specific policies, there is no doubt that the failures of Covid policy will be attributed entirely to the central government. The spectacle of Xi’s politburo being entirely constituted by “yes men” also suggests that channelling up discontent through party channels is no longer considered an easy option. Ironically, the successful consolidation of power at the top takes away the possibility of engaging with alternative viewpoints within the system. Perhaps the people are willing to see this.
Xi cannot displace the blame to protect his own aura. But most importantly, the protests have dented Xi and the leadership’s epistemic authority. The protests are a statement that the leadership is not in a best position to judge what trade-offs are appropriate. They cannot endlessly use people as fodder for its own preferred targets. The regime cannot disguise its failure to vaccinate or prepare the health system enough to open up. And ironically, increasing ambiguity about on the ground policies may have made the situation worse. With steep slowdown in economic growth, this authority will be challenged further. Even if Xi cracks down, this dent in authority might surreptitiously work itself out in the party over the coming few months.
And, finally, there is control over the information order. Despite censorship and propaganda, two lessons are clear. It is impossible to suppress or distract from information in the long run: One uncensored shot of a football World Cup game being watched without masks can trigger emotions. It is also a reminder that closed societies that put nationalist pride over the wellbeing of people run risks. In this case, China’s refusal to use vaccines made elsewhere left it vulnerable to a larger lockdown. There is no direct line from economic development to political freedom, but the modern world does require space for personal freedom that political orders challenge in the long run at their own peril.
Whether the protests are sustained depends on a number of things. First, the dynamics of contagion effects cannot be predicted. Could a precipitating incident galvanise more protests, or does the fear of anarchy lead to holding back? Major changes almost always come as a surprise because of the dynamics of collective action. But it is equally sobering to remember how most protests end up being domesticated or repressed. The second issue is elite cohesion. In protests that lead to major upheavals, usually there is a crack in the power elite that allows popular protest to channel up into change. This seems unlikely at the moment, partly because Xi has marginalised anyone with independent authority. Third, a lot depends on how Xi responds. Tactful concessions and some targeted repression may work. Giving concessions may not be as significant a loss of face as everyone assumes. The greater danger is Xi appearing indecisive, as, in fact, he has in his management of Covid. But he does have a problem that he is stuck with Covid — opening up risks steep rise in infections and deaths. But a lockdown is not sustainable either. We also don’t know how the generational divide might work out in this — the protest seems to be led by young people — and Xi may have to do a balancing act. But it would be out of character for this regime not to want to reassert its authority very quickly. Even in 1989, where there was arguably more elite division, the revolt was snuffed out. And the analogies with Arab Spring are a bit far-fetched, since the Chinese state has deeper social roots.
These protests have global implications. The global mood affiliation about democracy will undergo a shift. Democracies might be in crisis. But authoritarian regimes are in a deeper crisis. The protests underscore the fact that demands for a fair degree of personal freedom, freer information, or that governments justify themselves to their citizens are not parochial cultural values. But the economic and strategic implications of this shift are uncertain. Is a Xi regime, with its authority dented, more likely to mobilise nationalism and assert Chinese power on the international stage? Does it feed a greater conspiratorial mind set about regime change being instituted from the outside? Or does it make him more risk averse?
The challenge for Xi is that with his authority dented, he cannot easily pivot to a new domestic narrative to reclaim aura for the party. Reclaiming the economic high ground will not be easy, as the Chinese state did after 1989. So you might be looking at the regime with immense power but increasingly unsure of its own authority, a deadly combination. The protests may not change the regime. But, as good political action does, they will rupture the aura, self-confidence and presumptuousness of the regime. Nothing is more democratic than that.
The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express