BEIJING — The scenes in China in recent days have been electrifying.
Last weekend, in several cities across the country, from cosmopolitan Shanghai to far-western Xinjiang, ordinary people took to the streets to denounce the government’s stifling Covid-19 suppression policy and in some cases call for democracy and freedom of speech.
The sudden release of nearly three years of pent-up frustration over the excessive Covid measures — which have disrupted lives, separated families and crippled the economy — is the largest anti-government outburst since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square. Again, the odds are against the protesters. The Chinese Communist Party, which completely controls the country, has moved quickly to suppress it.
But the Chinese people have reached a tipping point. The brutal crackdown in 1989 left China’s people depoliticized and intimidated into the social contract that has governed life for three decades: Leave politics to the party in return for some economic freedom. A new generation, pushed to the brink by the government’s zero-Covid obsession, has discovered its voice.
It is ironic how this came about. After the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, preventing pro-democracy protests in China became one of President Xi Jinping’s top priorities. Chinese civil society was wiped out, and he has strengthened his power by purging the party of any potential political rivals and amending China’s Constitution in 2018 to abolish presidential term limits, allowing him to remain in power indefinitely. The uncompromising approach to the pandemic is merely an extension of that, another tool to prevent an open society from developing. After a decade of enormous effort by the party to inoculate China against revolution, it has brought one on itself through its zero-Covid policy.
The seeds were sown this year with a two-month lockdown of Shanghai in April and May, imposed to stop the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. All of China watched as the city’s 25 million people suffered immense psychological and economic pain. It inadvertently drew people back into political life. Locked down at home or separated from families or worried about food, they were forced to re-evaluate whether the social contract was still tenable. Shanghai’s collective trauma was unlike anything else the people had endured since China began opening up four decades ago, and it laid the groundwork for the demonstrations of the past week.
The party added insult to Shanghai’s injury. After the lockdown finally ended, no political response or psychological comfort was offered. Rather, at the Communist Party Congress in October, Shanghai’s former top leader Li Qiang was rewarded for his strict implementation of the lockdown with elevation to the No. 2 position in the government. He is poised to become China’s next premier in March. This is typical of the past three years of Covid controls; not even a minimum of ethics or responsibility was shown by the leadership, despite the pain and loss suffered by ordinary people.
At the congress, Mr. Xi tightened his grip on what can now only be called a totalitarian regime, ensuring himself another five-year term and stacking the top party ranks with his loyalists. And Chinese leaders once again declared the Covid policy a success that was fully supported by the public and would be maintained.
This was too much for China’s frustrated people, and when soccer’s World Cup in Qatar kicked off this month, images of thousands of fans from around the world enjoying the spectacle without masks lifted the veil from Chinese eyes. After being force-fed nearly three years of propaganda that said that the party had saved China from the virus while the United States and other democracies had botched the response, people saw the truth: The world had moved on from the pandemic, back to normal life.
The surreal suffering of ordinary Chinese continued: There were viral reports of people dying after Covid restrictions prevented them from receiving timely medical care, workers clashed with security personnel over delayed bonuses and their living conditions at a central China factory that makes iPhones, and people in a southern city burst out of their confinement to protest food shortages.
The final straw came on Nov. 24, when a fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, killed at least 10 people. Many Chinese people immediately suspected that Covid measures had obstructed firefighters’ access, though officials denied that, and a wave of empathy and frustration spread across the country. Chinese people will often admit to a cold and selfish streak in our society, but they suddenly found common cause in their fear and frustration.
I, too, have endured zero-Covid’s indignities: lining up with others like cattle for daily tests; obsessing on my phone over the mandatory health code, which dictates whether you can move about in public; and wondering whether tomorrow I would be locked down again for weeks. Along with millions of others, I sat at home in Beijing, glued to my phone deep into the night last weekend as images began circulating on Chinese social media showing young demonstrators holding blank sheets of paper — an expression of silent defiance that has become the symbol of this movement.
For anyone who has lived in China for the past three years, it was cathartic; our shared fear had become our shared power. The next day, demonstrators burst out of closed communities and university campuses to mourn the Urumqi victims, demand an end to zero Covid and call for human rights and freedom.
Covid-19 may still be deadly for some and no worse than the flu for others, but what’s clear now is that China’s Communist leaders face a significant political crisis of their own making. The social and economic consequences of Mr. Xi’s unbending approach have shined a glaring light on the rigidity of the Communist system and the bankruptcy of its ideology and discourse and have revealed the true extent of public opposition, which was conveniently absent from the political stage of the party congress. The protests in China are a potent display of the vast distance between Mr. Xi’s government and the people.
This is a more serious problem for the party than the 1989 movement, which was largely limited to college students in Beijing. The recent demonstrations have brought workers, university students and the middle class together in a highly spontaneous nationwide expression of despair over a government unbound by checks and balances.
It will inevitably be met with the sort of severe repression that was used to silence pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, as well as intensified pandemic restrictions. But this will be extremely difficult for the government to sustain indefinitely. Mr. Xi’s Covid policy has exposed the system’s inherent weakness, and he is losing the two most critical bases of political support in China: university students and the middle class.
When the demonstrators took to the streets, it evoked the moment Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. The die has been cast. China’s future belongs to those people on the streets.