The nationwide protests against the Chinese government’s draconian COVID-19 lockdowns are creating the biggest crisis in China since Xi Jinping became the country’s leader in 2012. China is not short of protests, but protests are usually local and isolated. Not this time. According to CNN, COVID protests have broken out in 17 Chinese cities. Some protesters have sounded overtly anti-regime tones, chanting “Step down, Xi Jinping” and “Step down, the Communist Party.” These have been incredibly brave acts of defiance against a leader who just a month ago had consolidated power at the 20th congress of China’s Communist Party.
But as remarkable as these protests are, it is unlikely they will shake the staying power of the party’s rule. Nor are they an existential threat to the regime or to Xi, especially as the Chinese government has begun to ease the COVID lockdowns in a move to address the central grievance of most protesters.
Consider the following. The COVID protests are the largest anti-government movement in China since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. But they have been significantly smaller, attracting thousands of people — unlike in 1989, when millions of people took to the streets.
In contrast, the COVID protests have been relatively modest in size despite the depth and breadth of the protesters’ central grievance — the forcible confinement of hundreds of millions of people in their homes and in field hospitals. The lockdowns have been linked to suicides, miscarriages, fires, and many other instances of collateral damage — and yet in a country of 1.4 billion people, the total number of protesters is more likely in the tens of thousands, not millions.
The protests are significant for the simple fact that they have happened at all, not because of the danger they pose to the government. The Chinese state is incredibly strong. That is partly because China has installed, according to one estimate, 600 million surveillance cameras and has one of the world’s densest police networks. It is also because a crucial ingredient that is required to launch a sustained mass movement is missing in China: collective action and an independent civil society.
Take Russia as a comparison. Russia is what is known as “electoral autocracy” and President Vladimir Putin’s regime is very repressive. Yet Russia still has some residue of legitimate organized opposition to Putin. That is not the case in China. Despite its globalized economy and large middle class, China’s society is more closed than Russia’s. During the run up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, a survey conducted by Western researchers showed only 8 percent of Russian citizens supported sending troops to Ukraine. It is unimaginable that Western researchers could conduct similar unimpeded surveys in China, let alone on the eve of a major military operation.
The Internet is also more restricted in China. Google operates in Russia, although under heavy censorship. But it is banned in China. So are Twitter and Facebook. China has a sophisticated system to censor and scrub anti-government content from social media, and its most popular communication tools, such as WeChat, are carefully monitored. Technology that has been used elsewhere to organize protests is unable to serve that function in China.
Moreover, the private sector, strong as it is in economic terms, has never been in a position to challenge the regime. China’s private sector now generates more than 60 percent of gross domestic product and 80 percent of urban employment. But its economic muscle has yet to translate into political power. China’s venerated high-tech luminaries seem to be no match for — or have no desire for opposing — the power of the Chinese state.
In 2020, for instance, just a few days before the biggest initial public offering in history, Xi canceled the scheduled stock debut for the Ant Group, a fintech subsidiary of Alibaba. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, was often viewed as politically untouchable. Not so. The usually visible and outspoken Ma then largely disappeared from public view.
The only way that the COVID protests can threaten the safety of the Chinese Communist Party is if the Chinese leadership itself becomes split on the issue, an unlikely development at the current level of the protests — and even if the protests continue to intensify. Xi has just secured his third five-year term by methodically configuring his leadership team with trusted allies. Autocracies fail because of elite rebellions, according to one study. Xi does not face that danger.
The protests may not have damaged the foundation of the Communist Party rule, but they are a sign that the trust people have in their government, in its capacity to solve problems and its ability to safeguard the public’s welfare, has eroded. It seems to have dawned on many people, whether they have participated in the demonstrations or not, that this government, with its sheen of infallibility, has mismanaged and is badly underprepared for a gigantic public health crisis.
The protests forced the hand of the Chinese government to open the country on a schedule it did not choose but also on a schedule that leaves the country potentially unprepared for a major virus surge. Chinese vaccines are not as effective as Western vaccines and the country has wasted three years enforcing its zero COVID policy rather than expanding medical resources, increasing hospital beds, and vaccinating its vulnerable population with effective vaccines. This is not a propitious scenario and the government in Beijing will soon learn just how damaging its missteps have been. At a time it needs the trust from its people the most, it may have less of it than in decades.
Yasheng Huang is professor of global economics and management at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “The Rise and the Fall of the EAST: Examination, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology in Chinese History and Today.”