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How China's COVID protests challenged Xi Jinping

William Yang in Taipei
December 13, 2022

As China continues to pivot away from its zero-COVID strategy, experts say the weeks-long protests in the country may have damaged Xi Jinping's reputation, but his power remains largely unaffected.

People hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi,
Past social movements in China often opposed local authorities, while the White Paper Movement is taking aim at the central governmentImage: Thomas Peter/REUTERS

More than two weeks after protesters in China took to the streets demanding an end to "zero-COVID" policies, authorities have begun scaling back more and more restrictions

After lifting a series of strict pandemic control measures last week — including ending large-scale lockdowns and mandatory quarantine and PCR test requirements — Beijing announced on Monday that it will abolish the COVID-19 trace tracking starting Tuesday.

"Mobile itinerary card inquiry channels such as text messages, web pages, WeChat extensions, Alipay extensions, and the app will go offline at the same time," said China's Academy of Information and Communications Technology in an official statement on the social media platform WeChat.

Zero-COVID 'can't stay forever'

Many view Beijing's decision to pivot away from strict pandemic containment policies as a victory for Chinese protesters, who have presented an unexpected challenge to President Xi Jinping after he secured an unprecedented third term in October.

"The timing of the changes in messaging and later policy is a direct result of the protests, but the zero-COVID strategy by construct is socially and economically unsustainable and has caused considerable friction not just between the government and the people, but also among different levels and agencies within the Chinese bureaucracy itself," said Yangyang Cheng, a research scholar at Yale Law School.

"Zero-COVID can't be kept forever, so the government recognizes that it needs an off-ramp, and the protest, in a way, has provided the government with such an excuse," she told DW.

Riot police in personal protection suits (PPE) walk down a street during COVID restriction protests in November in Guangzhou, Guangdong province
Riot police in personal protection suits (PPE) walk down a street during COVID restriction protests in November in Guangzhou, Guangdong provinceImage: REUTERS

Xi's power remains largely unaffected, say experts

According to Cheng, not only can Beijing's move to ease restrictions help diffuse public anger, it also provides the government the ability to blame the inevitable COVID outbreaks on the protesters, instead of "on its own policies that failed to adequately vaccinate the population and build up healthcare capacity."

Other experts think that while the protests may have damaged Xi's reputation, his power remains largely unaffected.

"Following the protests, Chinese citizens' trust in the government has dropped, but there is still a long way to go in terms of threatening China's political stability," said Hsin-Hsien Wang, an expert on Chinese politics at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

"Although many Chinese people are dissatisfied with the government, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has responded to Chinese people's grievances appropriately. Protesters who have called for the Party and Xi to step down could face retribution from the CCP once the current chaos dies down," he told DW.

Protesters take aim at the government

Dubbed the "White Paper Movement," some experts believe the latest protests are the most significant large-scale protest movement in China since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

"This is the most significant protest or mass incident that we have seen at least for over a decade," said Wenti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University (ANU).

"For the first time, there is a national level stimulus, which is the zero-COVID policy, and the impact was felt across regional, class and ethnic lines. This is a clear issue that could unite localized protests, and potentially melt them into one greater cause. One that would be threatening to those in power," he told DW.

The impact of protests in China

Wang from NCCU said that while past social movements in China often opposed local authorities, the White Paper Movement is aimed at the central government.

"People know that the central government, especially Xi Jinping, gives orders under the zero-COVID policies, which is why the protests were aimed at him," he said.

"In the past, Chinese leaders would have many layers of 'fire walls' to shield them from direct criticism, but when the power is too centralized on Xi, there are no longer firewalls to protect him, which makes it more likely for similar incidents to happen in the future," Wang added.

And unlike past mass protests in China, which largely focused on economic and social issues, Wang said protesters from the White Paper Movement raised political awareness regarding democracy and political freedom.

"Economic and social issues can be solved by money, but issues related to freedom, democracy and human rights are more expansive," he said.

Through various forms of protests, including raising pieces of blank white papers and chanting various slogans, Chinese protesters of the White Paper Movement have demonstrated greater political savvy, Sung from ANU thinks.

"They show political savvy by covering all the bases while minimizing their vulnerabilities to prevent the state from getting any pretext that could be used to isolate protesters," he said.

"We see a strong political self-preservation instinct from many protesters, which makes it a critical and self-circumscribed collective political action."

China shifts away from zero-COVID

Lack of cross-regional mobilization

However, both Wang and Sung think there are still limitations to the extent of impact of the White Paper Movement.

"Since there is no connection and organization between protests in different locations, it's easy for the Chinese authorities to target each of the protests," Wang said.

"We should also not underestimate the Chinese government's ability to maintain stability," he added.

Sung said that while the Chinese protesters have shown their coordination capacity, they didn't show their mobilization capacity.

"While there were spontaneous protests emerging in several cities, there weren't signs of cross-regional mobilization," he said. "That's why these protests are significant political protests with significant political energy, but they haven’t truly become one political movement."

Following the unprecedented nationwide protests, Sung believes the Chinese authorities will likely find a way to repair their ability to deter similar protests in the future. "They would start by repairing the credibility of Beijing's social management regime," he said.

"What the protesters might have achieved is making subsequent political protests a little bit easier. The protests have accomplished something akin to a broken window effect, which means that protests may not necessarily invite significant punishment," Sung added.

Edited by Sou-Jie van Brunnersum