TIPP: China’s ‘zero Covid’ reaches breaking point


There was hope that President Xi Jinping was pushing the ‘zero-covid’ policy until he could secure his record third term. Once those formalities were complete, China, it was assumed, would slowly open from the pandemic-induced lockdowns and return to normal. The citizens and industries worldwide that rely on Chinese-produced goods looked forward to those lenient days.

But even after President Xi realized his dream of a third term, China seems to be in a time warp. Strict lockdowns, travel restrictions, compulsory PCR tests, frequent closures, and an air of gloom, common before Covid-19 vaccines were introduced, are the norm in much of the country.

Despite such rigid precautions, Covid cases in China are again rising. On Sunday, 40,000 new cases were reported in the country. While some measures may be warranted, indefinite lockdowns that have led to food and medicine shortages can hardly be justified years after the initial outbreak.

Beijing’s belligerent adherence to the draconian measures is puzzling. China has a large elderly population that is unvaccinated. According to available data, nearly one-third of the above-sixty population has not received the three vaccine doses. Among eighty and above, the numbers are more dismal. Only 40% of seniors in the age bracket have received three doses. Surprisingly, a government that is excellent at making citizens obey its decrees has shied away from spearheading vaccine drives to achieve higher compliance.

While the government claims the cautionary policies are to save the nation from mass deaths and overwhelming the healthcare system, the citizens seem to have reached their breaking point. The flashpoint was a fire in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, which killed ten people. The region, already subject to Beijing’s notorious human rights violations and minority oppression, has been under a strict lockdown for more than 100 days. The locals blame the slow emergency response to the fire and fatalities on the pandemic restrictions in effect.

But, the protests are not limited to the western region. It has spread across the country. People are taking to the streets and defying security personnel to assemble in demonstrations. Slogans range from “No lockdown but freedom” and “No PCR testing but food” to “Step down, Xi Jinping; step down CCP.” A few also threaten President Xi’s ambition to remain a ruler for life, chanting, “No emperor, no rule for life.”

While it is doubtful that citizen demonstrations and protests will result in a regime change in Beijing, the third-term President is facing a largely unexpected outburst. Xi Jinping, anticipating threats from within the CCP, has shored up his cabinet with loyalists during the party congress in October. But how will he deal with the citizens?

The fact that police and security personnel did not immediately unleash their ruthless repression has led many to speculate that many of them, too, sympathize with the protestors. Videos of protests and online posts condemning the government’s policies are staying up longer than usual.

But Beijing has an intense loathing for protests. The government has, of course, started the crackdown. The Internet has been cut off in many cities. Arrests are being made. Plain clothes police are infiltrating rallies and marches. Police patrols have increased, and there are warnings against assembling for protests.

Despite the fear of repercussions, the citizens continue to take to the streets, calling for easing restrictions. The numerous demonstrations have brought to mind the Tiananmen protests of 1989. But, this time, it’s vastly different. It is not university students leading the agitation. People from all walks of life are taking part. The unrest is not contained in the cities; its spread to rural China. The oppressed people of Xinjiang are also rising.

While President Xi sailed into his unprecedented third term without facing significant challenges, it looks like the people are getting ready for a confrontation with the leadership. In China, the government directs, and citizens obey. The give-and-take is perfunctory. But, just as the pandemic changed perspectives everywhere, could the Chinese have had enough of obeying? Will the frustration induced by Covid-19 restrictions do away with three-plus decades of fear of the authorities?



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