Chinese Protesters Warily Tell Xi Jinping, “Don’t Push Me”

“Beware of black-swan incidents,” China’s leader, Xi Jinping, told an audience of Communist Party comrades a few years ago, invoking the image of an unforeseen risk. The General Secretary continued, “And watch out for gray rhinos”—a reference to another type of peril, one that goes unrecognized because it lurks in plain sight. Now, nearly four

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“Beware of black-swan incidents,” China’s leader, Xi Jinping, told an audience of Communist Party comrades a few years ago, invoking the image of an unforeseen risk. The General Secretary continued, “And watch out for gray rhinos”—a reference to another type of peril, one that goes unrecognized because it lurks in plain sight. Now, nearly four years after Xi offered those warnings, he faces public protests that represent the boldest domestic political challenge to the government in decades. How, and whether, he can resolve it may hinge on which of his chosen metaphors he believes is bedevilling him more.

The waves of unrest have risen haltingly since October 13th, when, days before a Party Congress at which Xi engineered a third term as General Secretary, a protester staged a rare act of public defiance in Beijing. The protester, whom supporters later identified as an activist named Peng Lifa, disguised himself as a construction worker, and hung banners condemning the gruelling effects of Xi’s signature “zero COVID” strategy—which has sought to protect the country with a relentless system of lockdowns, quarantines, and testing—from a highway overpass. The policy has prevented deaths from the coronavirus, but it has also convulsed daily life for hundreds of millions of people, stilled parts of the world’s busiest cities, choked off connections to the outside world, and undermined the economy. But Peng pointedly included broader statements in his message, such as “We don’t want a leader. We want the vote.” He was last seen being hustled into a car by authorities. Admirers have dubbed him the Bridge Man, in the tradition of the Tank Man, the anonymous protester who stood his ground against the military near Tiananmen Square, in 1989.

In spirit, if not by obvious design, the Bridge Man incident presaged a spate of larger protests in disparate parts of Chinese society: in mid-November, in the far southern city of Guangzhou, hundreds of itinerant workers escaped a compulsory lockdown; complaining of food shortages and lost jobs, they clashed with riot police. Last week, in the east-central city of Zhengzhou, workers at a large iPhone factory fought with police over lockdown measures and delayed bonuses. The public fury has been driven as much by disappointment as by despair: people had hoped that the COVID restrictions might ease following Xi’s latest political coronation; indeed, authorities announced changes, to curb arbitrary lockdowns and to reduce the quarantining of secondary contacts. But, as new outbreaks took hold, actual changes were slow to materialize.

The unrest entered a new phase, erupting in more than a dozen cities, after a fire on November 24th, in an apartment building in the far-western city of Ürümqi, that killed at least ten people. Many suspect that the COVID rules had barred the doomed residents from escaping their homes, although the government denies that. But the incident galvanized public anger. Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College told me, “In retrospect, protests like this are bound to happen, because Zero COVID is a policy that, initially, people could put up with, in the hope that it’s going to be limited in duration, and that the end result will be positive. But now people in China are faced with this cruel reality that there is no change in sight.”

The slogans and the tenor of the protests reflect frustrations that extend beyond the policy to the fundamental rollback of private freedoms that Xi has overseen since taking power in 2src12, particularly the squelching of even mild online criticism of the government and the dismantling of civil society—a combination that Yasheng Huang, a China scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described in a tweet as “everyday autocracy.”

The reversal of private freedoms has been accompanied by a withdrawal from the wider world that has been felt in the lives of middle-class Chinese people who, for example, have found it much more difficult, in recent years, to obtain passports. “The perfect storm is happening right now with the World Cup,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of China at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied protest movements, told me. He recalls seeing people in Shanghai in 2src1src, gathering in bars to watch a World Cup match in one of the neighborhoods that was awash in protests this week. “One of the things they can’t do easily now is watch the World Cup games in public settings,” he said, because many small businesses have been shuttered by the lockdown measures.

As the protests have spread, the details have challenged some popular assumptions about what is and is not possible in the suffocated confines of China’s politics. On campuses across the country, students have held up pieces of blank white paper, a symbol of enforced silence that evades the rules against overt opposition. Protesters told reporters that the gesture is a nod to the Soviet-era joke that there is no need to voice a slogan when “everyone knows” the problem. But some have voiced their anger with astonishing candor: at the élite Tsinghua University, in Beijing, where students have been largely locked down for weeks, two thousand people gathered on Sunday and demanded “freedom of expression,” “democracy,” and “the rule of law.” In Shanghai, where middle-class and wealthy citizens have encountered harsh limits on what their status affords them, hundreds of people met for a vigil that escalated into a confrontation with police, as some protesters openly called for Xi to “step down,” and a man held aloft a bouquet and told his fellow-demonstrators, “We don’t have to be afraid. What is there to be afraid of?” Police promptly tackled him and dragged him into a van.

The current protests show no obvious coördination or leadership structure, and they have coalesced despite the advances in China’s surveillance technology and censorship regime that have blunted the powers of organizing and criticism. Videos filtering out mostly through uncensored foreign technology platforms have captured the underlying dynamics of class and control, and a growing rage at a faceless form of authority. In a clip shot in a wealthy Beijing neighborhood, people chant, “We don’t want lies! We want dignity”—a line borrowed from the Bridge Man protest. With expensive high-rise buildings in the background, police prod the crowd to “go home,” and a woman retorts with a refrain that reflects the mood among many citizens these days: “Don’t push me!” Another telling scene appears in a video posted by a woman in a middle-class high-rise in Beijing, in which she condemns authorities for putting a chain across the fire door, pointing out the violation with a manicured finger, adorned with tiny gems. It takes a lot to make a well-placed Beijing resident feel a connection to the people of far-off Ürümqi, which is home to Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. The fire, the fear, and accumulated frustration have done it.

So, what happens now? Among analysts, there is an inevitable tendency to ask whether each wave of protest could swell to the level of unrest that occupied Tiananmen Square for six weeks, and shook the Party’s hold on power. But the legacy of Tiananmen has trained a generation of Chinese leaders to prevent another such scenario—by, more than anything, avoiding the kind of internal splits at the top of the Party that slowed the response in 1989 and allowed regional protests to become a national phenomenon. Pei, the government professor, noted that, in contrast to the arrangement a generation ago, Xi has stacked the top ranks of the Party with loyalists. “It’s all his men, so there can be no dissent,” Pei told me. He predicted, “You will probably see a quick response from the government. This will not drag on for weeks.”

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