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Analysis: China protests highlight Xi’s COVID policy dilemma – to walk it back or not

BEIJING (Reuters) – A rare weekend of street protests in cities across China was a referendum on President Xi Jinping. Zero COVID Policy According to Chinese analysts, it was the strongest public defiance of his political career.

Not since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests have so many Chinese people risked arrest or exerted any other influence on China. take me to the street About a single issue.

Bates Gill, a China expert at the Asia Society, said, “In the decade under Xi Jinping, public outrage against government policies has become the most public and widespread.”

Public dissatisfaction with Xi’s zero-COVID policy, expressed on social media and offline by posting posters and protesting at universities, has continued to grow since protests against Hong Kong’s extradition bill in 2019. It is the biggest domestic challenge.

Xi claims responsibility for individuals who led ‘war’ against COVID-19, justifies zero COVID out of necessity to ‘put people first’, when he calls for an unprecedented one-third , counted his “right” COVID policy among his political accomplishments. His term expired at the 20th Communist Party Congress in October.

Almost three years after the pandemic, China says its policy is not aimed at zero cases all the time, but to act “dynamically” when cases surface. says there is.

Analysts say the protests are embarrassing to Xi, but they are far from overthrowing him, given his complete control over the party, military, security and propaganda machinery.

resistance to lockdown

While some protesters chanted “Overthrow Xi Jinping, overthrow the Chinese Communist Party,” most others chanted resisting residential blockades or waiving frequent virus testing. I was only interested in

“When these self-interests are satisfied, most people will calm down and move on,” said Chen Daoying, a former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, now a Chile-based commentator.

According to Chen, students were not highly organized or mentored by a central figure. Protests took place in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chengdu and Urumqi.

During the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the crackdown by Chinese authorities, the demonstrations were the last opportunity to replace the party general secretary, and the party’s view of how to manage the crisis and what path China might take in the future was questioned. There was an internal division among the top. .

Not so with Xi. In Congress, President Xi renewed his term as party leader and commander-in-chief, placing his supporters in all key positions within the party. Any leader who had previously voiced dissent or governed in a style different from his was marginalized.

The authoritarian deal has allowed Xi to become more powerful, but it also contains vulnerabilities exposed by the protests, analysts said.

“By being surrounded only by people who say what they want to hear, Xi Jinping is trapped in an echo chamber, which can lead to underestimation or indifference of how much people have suffered from his COVID policies. There was,” said Lance Gore, a China expert at the Institute of East Asian Studies in Singapore.

predicament

The protests are amplifying what is becoming increasingly precarious for Xi. Initially proud, the question is how to bounce back from a policy of increasing responsibility.

If he bows to public pressure and undoes zero COVID, he may look weak and take to the streets whenever people want change in the future.

Chinese human rights activist, lawyer and academic Teng Biao said, “If he lets go, it means his past COVID-19 zero policy has completely failed, and he has to take responsibility for it.” This will make him lose his face.

Analysts said it was not Mr. Xi’s character to give in.

Xi recently emphasized the need to prevent “color revolutions” or anti-government protests when he addressed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan in September. He lamented the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party because no one was “man enough” to stand up for himself.

If he changes course on COVID-19 policy before China is ready, it could lead to widespread illness, death and an overwhelmed healthcare system, the consequences of which are difficult to swallow.

But if he musters up the courage before declaring victory and finding a way to turn back, he risks further anger from an increasingly fed-up citizenry amid stagnant economic growth.

President Xi Jinping last month announced a “20-measure” to tweak the zero COVID policy, standardize preventive measures nationwide and try to make them more friendly to residents and the economy.

However, since President Xi Jinping has not officially abandoned the need to curb all outbreaks, many local authorities remain cautious and erring, impose tighter lockdowns than stipulated in the “20 measures.” and enforcing quarantine rules.

“At this stage, they seem clueless,” said Willie Lamb, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.

“On the one hand, Xi Jinping and all his factions appeared to be strong. But at the same time… we see no reaction from the new administration.”

Reported by Yew Lun Tian and Martin Quin Pollard.Editing by Grant McCool

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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