Wed, 01 Feb 2023

Hong Kong, December 5 (ANI): Party officials will have heaved a sigh of relief after the weekend of December 3-4 passed fairly uneventfully, in stark contrast to a week earlier when impromptu protests burst out around China on November 26.

Dissatisfaction with the government's zero-tolerance COVID strategy was the primary catalyst for protests in provinces and cities as far-flung as Beijing, Shanghai, Xinjiang, Sichuan, Guangzhou, Zhejiang, Hubei, Chongqing, Gansu, Anhui, Hunan, Henan, Jiangsu, and Shanxi. To keep it in perspective, just solitary protest events occurred in half of the aforementioned provinces; this was never a mass movement. Nevertheless, the authorities must have been alarmed that citizens expressed blatant fury at both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its infallible Chairman Xi Jinping.

China's embarrassment at these protests was evident when Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian was unwittingly confronted by a Western journalist asking whether Chinese protests would cause a relaxation in China's zero-COVID policy. After a protracted and strained silence, his mind was obviously racing through the merits of various responses. He finally awkwardly denied that any such protest movement was occurring.

On December 1, Xi told senior European officials that young people and teenagers were to blame for the protests since they were frustrated after three years of COVID restrictions. Yes, tens of thousands of students on at least 50 campuses in a dozen or so cities staged protests. However, it was not just young people protesting on Chinese streets. Xi conveniently chose this demographic as a scapegoat to deflect blame from his intolerant COVID policy.

If the winds of protest were to be fanned into a wider movement, then the recent weekend would have been the time for it to happen since people had time off work. Instead, there was a resounding silence around China about ongoing protests.

In the wake of the initial protests, China unleashed a multi-front response to disrupt the flow of information and to intimidate a wider pool of people. Such a modus operandi has long been used in China, so there is no surprise there. It appears state efforts to stifle the protests have been largely successful. But it is chillingjust how long the arm of the law is in China. Apart from Chinese police examining people's phones on the streets, technology such as facial recognition and mobile phone tracking means there is nowhere to hide.

Chinese police can retroactively trace protestors going back days, weeks, or even months.

Protesters donning masks or sunglasses were just as easily tracked down. Of course, protesting online is ridiculously dangerous, with phone numbers, national identity numbers, and social media platforms all inextricably linked. Nor is the surveillance system overwhelmed by sheer mass, for police bureaus have embraced big data.

Furthermore, Chinese phone forensics can pull data from more than 1,000 different local and foreign apps to find photographs or messages. Chinese law possesses vague crimes such as "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" or "gathering a crowd to disrupt order". Even holding up a blank piece of A4 paper could be enough to evoke such criminal charges. Previously, people have been sentenced to 3.5 years in jail for protesting demolitions in their village under such laws. Therefore, protesting on the streets requires immense courage.

Chinese authorities also flooded social media platforms with spam - including Western ones such as Twitter, and much of it was mildly pornographic - to drown out coverage of street protests. Beijing has spambot networks that can swiftly cause a deluge of diversionary messages.

Meanwhile, nationalist bloggers swiftly blamed foreign "black hands", and the government promised to crack down on "hostile forces". This card is a natural one for the CCP to play; after all, it is a natural progression of its propaganda that the world is out to contain China.

Various conspiracy theories abounded, including that the USA was instigating it all. For example, a common claim was that the USA has a USD500 million budget to initiate nationwide protests and that RMB80 payments were available for individuals. It would be a mistake to interpret these street protests through a Western democracy lens.

China has never been a democratic nation, and people view freedoms very differently from Americans, for example. Protests themselves are not unknown in China, but what made November's ones so special was the confluence of disparate strands coming together. People wanted to express their frustration with government policies, for ochlocracy - government by the populace, or mob rule - is more relevant to the Chinese than democracy.

If protests can achieve change in the government, then this is successful democracy in their eyes. What really matters is visible change, rather than mere promises of freedoms or empty democratic ideals. If a government policy is bad, people may gather to intimidate the government and force change. Nor do they rely on words or promises from politicians. Indeed, the focus for most is on their ability to effect change, rather than toppling a political party and transitioning to another equally incapable of meaningful change.

In this way, the populace will be placated if it sees tough government policies being eased. They see this as the government following the will of the people. Conversely, if protests occur and they see no change implemented, then they view the government as being undemocratic. Thus, many Chinese scorn so-called Western democracies, where politicians mouth empty slogans but never better the lives of their people.

This does not deny that many are unhappy with the omnipotence of Xi and the CCP. Incendiary protest slogans such as "CCP, step down" and "Xi Jinping, step down" were bold and unprecedented, and they reflect deep-seated resentment.

Doctor Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the USA, concluded, "And although it is unlikely that the pandemic-related protests might last for more than a fortnight or so, the fact that so many citizens and students dared to risk being arrested by freely expressing their convictions could translate into pressure on the party to make changes not only in COVID-related measures but to otheraspects of the system as well."Lam added: "...The claims of the CCP's propaganda machinery that the China model is inherently much better than the Western model in solving public health problems have been exposed as an embarrassing overstretch."Despite some conflicting signals, there are signs of change. For example, there are relaxations in Draconian COVID rules in Xinjiang, and barricades are to be removed in Beijing. What seems likely is localized semi-loosening, but definitely no full opening up this winter. Local officials charged with handling outbreaks are supposed to be "precise", but this might well be an impossible task as the country seeks a new equilibrium.Rumors still abound though, including one that makeshift quarantine facilities made from mobile cabins will remain for at least another five years. Others accuse local cadres from cashing in on vaccine manufacturing and testing to enrich themselves.

A more relaxed COVID regimen was a key demand of protestors and, if they feel it is starting to happen, this will reduce the need for them to take to the streets. Sops are being offered too, such as free railway tickets for students to return home early for Lunar New Year (the holiday does not begin till 22 January).

Nonetheless, Xinhua continues to print stories such as "Persistence is victory", for the CCP is always infallible and the suffering of the individual is irrelevant. In actual fact, the State Council had already issued a 20-point liberalization package on November 11. However, local officials largely ignored it because they feared for theirjobs if they allowed a pandemic to break out in their jurisdictions.

There is no escaping the fact that Xi faces an acute dilemma. Can he continue antagonizing the grass-roots and damaging the economy with snap lockdowns, or risk facing a tsunami of deaths if COVID spreads like wildfire?Xi already pleaded that his country "has a large number of vulnerable groups, unbalanced regional development and insufficient medical resources" as raison d'etre for his tough restrictions. Yet China has had the past three years to get ready for a COVID pandemic. Instead, it invested most efforts into restricting the virus rather than preparing the population to overcome it. Instead of improving hospital capacity and better vaccines, it spent money on quarantine camps and Orwellian levels of testing and lockdowns.

Chinese vaccines are less effective against the newer strains of COVID, but it is anathema to the CCP to purchase Western vaccines - that would be an admission of failure for Chinese technological prowess. It is not just national hubris that prevents China from importing mRNA vaccines either, for everything in China has become a national security issue, even Western vaccines.

Fewer than 60 per cent of Chinese have had a booster shot, a figure that falls to 40 per cent for thoseaged 80. Natural immunity is very low too. Life science research firm Airfinity estimates that between 1.3 million and 2.1 million Chinese could die in a mass COVID outbreak, at peak rates of 50,000 deaths per day.

Such a result was borne out by Hong Kong, which suffered one of the highest death rates in the world. Yet, China has only about half the rate of critical-care beds that Hong Kong does. China's vaccination campaign has now been reinvigorated, and Beijing has reportedly set targets of 90 per cent of those 80 years old to be fully vaccinated and boosted by the end of January 2023.

Since the protests, it is amazing how the tune has changed in Chinese reporting! Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan told national health officials on 30 November: "With the decreasing pathogenicity of the Omicron variant, the increasing vaccination rate, and the accumulating experience in outbreak control and prevention, China's pandemic containment faces a new stage and mission."Sun said China was taking a more "humane approach", and he did not use the term "dynamic zero-COVID" at all. Officials are now suddenly emphasizing the lower severity of Omicron, as though this had just been discovered. Omicron has been circulating in Shanghai and elsewhere since late March.

One day last week, the seventh-most popular trend on Weibo was, "Of 160,000 new cases in Guangzhou, only four show severe symptoms." Government messaging is turning a corner.

As another example of a dramatic turnaround, the People's Daily reported on 4 July that long COVID was a public health concern for the USA. On 13 October, the same newspaper reported long COVID was wide in scope and that symptoms could last several months or longer. By 1 December, the People's Daily was declaring there was no evidence for long COVID.

Guangzhou eased lockdowns in 11 districts on 30 November, and Shanghai did the same in 24 districts a day later, despite rising cases in each city. China may also allow COVID-positive patients, such as the pregnant, infirm and elderly, to quarantine at home. China will probably follow Hong Kong's model - a gradual domestic and international reopening over the coming six months.

China claims just 1.73 million cases and 5,235 deaths to date, but the national strategy never evolved as new COVID variants appeared. Xi was proud of his country's COVID death and transmission rate, but at what cost to people's freedom? Xi, an autocrat for the past decade, is used to getting his own way, and perhaps he even believed the propaganda story of his own immense popularity.

Yet many Chinese are resentful of his repressive ways. His brutal lockdowns have brought a lot of dormant sentiments to the surface. Any who expected these disparate protests would rise to a crescendo will be disappointed. There will not be meaningful political reform, and certainly no regime change. However, what is notable is that some Chinese dared to stand up, and the government has been forced to slightly soften its approach.

China's pathway out of zero-COVID will be bumpy and full of potholes. Not even pervasive state surveillance, unrelenting propaganda, and police oppression can disguise that. (ANI)

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