Sometimes all it takes is a spark. In China, it was a blaze. Within a month of President Xi Jinping securing an unprecedented third term after seeing off perceived or potential rivals, a challenge to his untrammelled powers and authority has arisen from the unlikeliest quarter — the Chinese street. A fire in an apartment block in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi killed 10 people because the fire services could not access the building locked down by local authorities in line with the state’s zero Covid strategy. The awfulness of this incident seems to have touched a raw nerve across the country. Even if only in the hundreds yet, people, mainly youngsters, have been stepping out to protest over the last few days against President Xi’s strict anti-Covid policies, with some momentum building up over the weekend as members of the public in major cities like Shanghai and Nanjing and the capital Beijing joined. The numbers at each protest site are not high, still they are unprecedented, organic and innovative — protestors are using blank white A4 sheets to demand freedom of speech.
Since the Tiananmen Square protest was brutally put down in 1989, there has been only one other instance of a large public protest, in 1999 by Falung Gong followers. That ended with a crackdown and the jailing of thousands. In 2020, the realisation that the government ignored a whistleblower doctor’s warnings about Covid led to an outpouring of anger on social media, especially after he died of the disease himself, but there were no street protests. This time around, zero Covid has strained national patience with its sudden lockdowns — in an apartment block, or a neighbourhood, even an amusement park with its visitors not allowed to leave. Towns and big cities have not escaped either, making China the only country in the world that is still using this measure to tackle its Covid cases. Travel to and from China has also not normalised yet. The football World Cup in Qatar, with lakhs of people flying in, must have been the last straw for audiences in China.
The expectation that President Xi would use the platform of the Communist Party of China Congress that took place in October to relax zero Covid rules, especially because of the damage the policy has wreaked on the economy, did not come true. In fact, he stressed the opposite — there would be no relaxations to the zero Covid policy. Xi, who has centralised powers in his hands, now personifies the Chinese state. Therefore it is not surprising that some of the anger is being directed at him openly. The long arm of the Chinese state may yet find a way to nip the protests before they turn into anything bigger. The world is watching to see how strongman Xi deals with this new domestic challenge.