With China currently experiencing some of the most widespread cases of public unrest in more than 30 years, NGS risk analyst Gary Abbott considers some of the wider implications for both Beijing and the international community.
The recent protests against President Xi’s Zero-Covid strategy in a string of cities across China are unprecedented and raise several important questions for the international community as a whole and for companies with operations in China in particular. The first important question is what the dissent means for China’s Covid-19 policy, which has – so far – been one of the most successful and stringent in the world but has led to striking shocks to China’s economy and wider global supply chains. The second is whether protests are likely to continue and the likelihood of escalation into a Tiananmen-Square scenario where protests are widespread and adopt a wider anti-CCP and pro-democracy stance. Thirdly, is what the likely response by the CCP would be, particularly the likelihood that they adopt draconian policies similar to those adopted at Tiananmen Square in 1989, which saw indiscriminate live fire against unarmed civilians. Finally, is how the international community are likely to respond to the protest, in particular how they are likely to respond to a harsh clampdown and draconian measures. Nevertheless, before probing these questions it is important to first consult the protests and then consider the wider political context that shapes the protests and their likely eventualities going forward.
The protests that flared across China can be traced to Thursday 24 November, when a fire killed a dozen or so people in an apartment complex in Ürümqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Chinese citizens, who have faced strict lockdown measures for almost three years, were subsequently angered when footage emerged that appears to show Covid-19 lockdown measures delaying emergency services. Then, on Saturday, demonstrations started on Ürümqi road in Shanghai, with demonstrators holding a vigil and calling for the relaxation of Covid-19 measures and some calling for President Xi to step down. Before long, protests spread across the country: the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Canberra) recorded 51 protests in 24 cities between Saturday 26 November – Tuesday 29 November. On Tuesday, protests occurred in six cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen (See Map 1). Although some were willing to shout anti-CPP and Xi Jinping rhetoric, the majority of the protestors were concerned with the relaxation of relentless Covid-19 restrictions, which hamper freedom of movement and require regular testing. In response to these protests, Beijing implemented a two-pronged approach: they first responded with a heavy police footprint in major urban centres to deter protestors (as occurred in Beijing and Shanghai on Monday and Tuesday) and established checkpoints, checking people’s phones for VPNs and Western social media apps that are blocked in China. Second, was a failed effort to control the information space: although China’s censorship capabilities are generally sophisticated and effective, videos of marches and rallies surfaced across Chinese social media sites, with reports indicating that the volume of videos overwhelmed the algorithms and manual censors charged with limiting dissent in China. Similarly, foreign sites such as Twitter saw a proliferation of videos showing unrest in China, subsequently leading to Chinese bots spamming the ‘Beijing Hashtag’ in a desperate bid to control the information space. Since then, the protests appear to have halted and largely dissolved.
Map 1. Protests in China between November 26 – 29 (ASPI, 2022).
Political Context: Understanding Civil Unrest in China
To be able to analyse the unprecedented protests that challenge President Xi’s Zero-Covid policy, it is important to acknowledge three interconnected dimensions that shape civil unrest in China. The first is the historical precedent of protests: in contrast to common assumptions, protests are not rare in China, they occur daily across the country. Official government statistics show that public disturbances rose tenfold from 1993 to 2005, increasing from 8,700 to 87,000. Although officials stopped publishing this information, Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor (Washington) recorded 636 incidents (such as strikes and demonstrations) between June-September 2022. Far from these protests being shunned by the party, civil unrest is often tolerated by Beijing as it acts as an important feedback mechanism for an otherwise isolated political structure. Unlike in democracies where there is a free movement of information from civil society to the state, China’s party-state system has fewer input mechanisms, meaning that protests can act as an important source of information on the popularity and efficacy of certain policies or the performance of certain officials. Nevertheless, protests will only be tolerated under specific circumstances: they must not be organised; they must not present a genuine threat to the party’s monopoly of power and influence in China, and they must not challenge or undermine the authority of President Xi.
Second, it is important to consider the elevated threat perception by the decision-making elite in Beijing, who share heuristics and common assumptions that lead to widespread existential angst. The CCP is highly attuned to internal threats against the party; it was shocked by the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union and are concerned it is next. Similarly, leaders in China are deeply influenced by the Century of Humiliation (from 1839 – 1949), when Western and Japanese empires took advantage of China’s weaknesses and subjugated the Qing Empire and then the Republic of China. From both of these events, the CCP learned the importance of maintaining a tight grip over the government and the military, and viewing disorder as an existential threat; a premium is placed on stability and socio-political equilibrium. In this regard, protests are not just a display of public grievances, they can be interpreted by policymakers as an existential threat to the regime which warrants a harsh crackdown.
This widespread existential angst contributes to the third important dimension of understanding civil unrest in China, namely the consolidation of power by President Xi. The post-Mao period is characterised by economic liberalisation, the relative retreat of the party from civil society, and the toleration of factionalism and ‘collective leadership’. Although these reforms were welcomed by Western governments, elites in China were concerned that they weakened the party, by leading to widespread corruption that undermined the party’s legitimacy and factionalism, which stunted the policy process and raised barriers to effective rule. As a result, when Xi became General Secretary in November 2012, elites in the CCP tolerated his rapid consolidation of power. Xi pursued a rapid anti-corruption drive that punished 1.5 million people by 2018 and legitimised the purging of internal rivals. In due course, Xi centralised his power further: he personalised the decision-making process away from state institutions and into a number of ‘leading small groups’ (nearly all of which he chairs); he cemented lifetime rule in 2018 by amending the state constitution and removing term limits for presidents; and he packed the most important decision-making body in China, the Politburo Standing Committee, with Xi loyalists at the 20th National Congress of the CCP in October 2022. Overall, although Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao, he is powerful because the party members view consolidation as a means to existentially secure ends in an era of unprecedented internal and external challenges. In this sense, Xi has been given power to ensure that China remains stable; to curb factionalism and challenges to his rule he needs to ensure widespread stability.
It is at this point that one can now address several important questions:
The future of the zero-Covid policy: Overall, Beijing is likely to loosen its Covid-19 measures, which have become unsustainable in the long term and have directly undermined its economic development. Policymakers in Beijing are likely to view the mass protests that have occurred since Thursday as important feedback on the viability of the Zero-Covid policy, which was one of Xi’s staple policies that shielded the country from high cases and deaths. However, with a premium placed on stability, in light of widespread grievances against curbs on the freedom of movement, the party appears to be preparing the information space and the general public for a change in the Covid-19 strategy. Not only have several cities changed their isolation mandates (something that could not occur without the party’s approval), but Sun Chunlan, the Vice Premier who oversaw the Covid-19 response, announced on Wednesday 30 November that Omicron had decreased in toxicity and that “China’s pandemic containment faces a new stage and mission”. In this regard, it is likely that the country will gradually reduce Covid-19 measures, reducing economic woes in China and freeing up supply chains across the world.
The likelihood of further protests: Further protests are contingent on the Covid-19 strategy. The citizens of China trade political and civil liberties in exchange for economic growth and socio-political stability; the CCP has upset this agreement through its zero-Covid strategy which has disrupted the lives of Chinese citizens for almost three years. Upon consideration of the fact that the party seems poised to change its overall Covid-19 strategy, it is likely that as restrictions ease, so will grievances and civil unrest. In contrast to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the unrest is specific to COVID policies and has – at this time –not adopted a wider anti-CCP and pro-democracy rhetoric.
The CCP’s response to protests: In the unlikely scenario that protests continue, the CCP is likely to match the response to protests with the perceived level of threat. As it stands, the protests are scattered, decentralised – primarily organised through social media and at universities – and have specific aims, namely the alteration of Covid-19 restrictions. Should these types of protests continue, dissenters are likely to be tracked through facial recognition capabilities and phones are likely to be searched at checkpoints for anti-regime rhetoric, something that is already implemented to curb dissent in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. However, in the unlikely scenario that protests turn into a widespread anti-CCP movement and pro-democracy movement, the CCP is likely to respond in a draconian manner. This would likely include the fusion of efforts to control the information space (even further internet restrictions, if not blanket internet shutdowns) with increased security footprints in urban centres and the arrest of high-ranking protestors, something that happened to the Democracy Party of China in 1998, who established branches across the country before their leaders were arrested. In this scenario, dissent is likely to be blamed on foreign agents so a forceful crackdown is legitimised, with the head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (the top decision-making body for law enforcement), warning on Tuesday 29 November that authorities would act against “infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces”. Although unlikely at this time, the CCP would meet such challenges to the regime with all available means, including measures that were used to combat the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Regardless of protests continuing, the protest movement has revealed gaps in the CCP’s censorship capabilities, making clampdowns on VPNs and foreign social media apps likely.
The likely international response to protests: There are two main scenarios that determine the international communities response to the ongoing protests. In the first scenario, where protests continue in a scattered manner and are met by low levels of police violence, Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdon, and members of the European Union, are likely to confine their response to superficial rhetoric, specifically denouncing what they view to be limitations to civil liberties. However, in the event that protests increase in intensity and witness greater clampdowns and potentially draconian measures, then the response by Western countries is likely to match their response to the policies adopted in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In this scenario, Western countries are likely to adopt a coordinated sanctions effort, similar to one adopted in March 2021, against party cadres perceived to be responsible for the crackdowns. Overall, although concerns against China are widespread in Western capitals, China’s economy is ten times the size of Russia, rendering widespread sanctions on the country unlikely. In this regard, the international community is increasingly moving toward a multipolar system where Western and liberal ideas continue in certain regions, but outright authoritarian practices are tolerated – by necessity – in others.
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
Author: Gary Abbott, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
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