Chinese revolt, or first peals of thunder?
    Mikhail Shereshevskiy's analysis

    ANALYTICS  28 November 2022 - 18:13

    Mikhail Shereshevskiy

    Chinese security forces' armored vehicles are being brought to Shanghai and Wuhan. Riots are intensifying in the cities amid widespread coronavirus restrictions.

    The Economist magazine points out that unrest is erupting across China. Discontent with street and city closures is growing. No one knows how or when Xi Jinping's "zero-covid" policy of powerful lockdowns will end; they sometimes cover cities of millions of people or entire regions for weeks. The Chinese used to be tolerant of such measures. Today, their patience is wearing thin. People ask: why don't other governments pursue a similar zero-covid policy?

    From Urumqi in the northwest to Shanghai in the east, demonstrations and protests have shaken China in recent days. They have varied in scale and nature, but they all had one theme in common: the demand to end the zero-covid campaign and rid the population of violent lockdowns.

    On November 24, a house fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, killed ten people. Local residents said that doorways and fire exits in the building had been sealed for the duration of the quarantine and that was what caused the tragedy. However, the head of the fire brigade said, "The ability of some residents to self-rescue was too weak, so they could not save themselves."

    As is often the case in history, someone's insolent remark in a tense situation was the last straw that overflowed the cup of public patience. People took to the streets. "If you don't have bread, eat cakes," words attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette of France, were one of the triggers for the Great French Revolution. It was almost the same response to the workers by the director of the Novocherkassk factory in the USSR in 1962 (which sparked a strike and riot): "If you don't have money for meat, eat liver pies."

    Protests in Xinjiang have awakened the country. Young people in Shanghai gathered over the weekend to honor the victims of the Urumqi fire, with some calling for the overthrow of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party regime. The protest in Beijing took place on November 27 and included words of solidarity with those arrested in Shanghai and those killed in Xinjiang. There were also demonstrations against the zero-covid policy on university campuses across the country.

    But the problem is not just covid lockdowns. It is overlaid with others related to slowing economic growth, rising social inequality, etc.

    Earlier, on November 23, crowds of workers at the world's largest iPhone factory outside the city of Zhengzhou clashed with special police units. Judging by reports from there, they were angered by unfulfilled promises from Foxconn, the company that runs the plant - promises about bonuses as well as various covid restrictions (Foxconn itself claims that all contractual promises have been kept).

    The situation in the PRC is such that two-thirds of the population, a billion people, live on about one-third of the territory. In this sense, China is an ant colony country, like Egypt, where 90 per cent of the population lives mostly in urban agglomerations along the Nile River. Under such conditions, any protest quickly spreads across the country - think of the human wave of high density. This, by the way, is the problem of all modern large urban agglomerations. And here is the main vulnerability of the Chinese Communist Party regime. Of course, this does not mean that the population will support any kind of intervention. For example, in China, thanks to hardline nationalism, few people supported the separatism of Tibetans or Hong Kong. But when and if we are talking about issues everyone understands, about crazy measures in the style of zero-covid city lockdowns (a principle that probably made sense at the beginning of the pandemic, but has now clearly exhausted itself), and when all this is superimposed on economic and social problems (slowing growth, huge social inequality, ecology), society reacts.

    The other side of the coin is the behavior of the Chinese working class. From about the beginning of the 20th century, this class has been a threat to every regime in China, be it the Kuomintang or the CCP. China's working class is not about peaceful protest and legal trade unions, but about violent revolts and secret societies attacking businessmen. A little-known fact is that the CCP, led by Mao Zedong, came to power thanks to the peasant movement, but not thanks to the workers. Moreover, the working class has been most hostile to the Maoists since the early 1950s, when it resisted the dissolution of the factory committees that ran the factories and replaced them with trade unions loyal to the authorities. The Maoists suppressed strikes in Shanghai and other cities. Mao was well aware of this problem and his hatred for the qualified educated factory working class, including the "theory of the labor aristocracy," truly had no limits.

    No one was ever able to deal with the labor movement to the end. Worker protests, be it the "Tiananmen incident of 1976" and the 1989 uprising, came back again and again. It is little known that the 1989 uprising in Beijing's Tiananmen Square was not only about student protest, but also about worker protest, and while the students were going to negotiate with the regime, the workers from the IWUB (Independent Workers Union of Beijing) were not going to do so and supported armed action against the power of party officials.

    The problem of rebellion in the factories occasionally makes itself felt. And this, along with high population density, creates conditions for regime destabilization. Alexander Gabuyev, a Russian researcher of the PRC, points to the latter. In his opinion, this factor is the reason for the Chinese government's constant concern for the growth of society's welfare.

    The economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the last century led to the elimination of the relatively inefficient Marxist-Leninist economic model - today up to 80 per cent of Chinese work in the private sector - and to rapid economic growth. However, the same problems persist.

    The contemporary economist and former head of the World Bank, Branko Milanovic, calls the Chinese system "political capitalism". He points out that this type of capitalism has a constant concern for internal stability. Therefore, for the CCP government, ensuring economic growth is a major policy challenge. We need the majority of Chinese people to feel at least a slight improvement every year, that is what the regime's legitimacy is based on. If growth slows down, this becomes a key political issue for the authorities. The main incentive for them to care about economic growth is fear.

    At the same time, it is doubtful that the Chinese will join the Iranians in a similar revolt today. The country still has an economic boom (though it is slowing down) and strong security systems in place. But we may have witnessed the first peals of thunder. Gabuyev warned earlier that Xi's "zero-covid" policy, the government's incompetent attempts to over-correct a number of economic sectors, the drop in growth rates, and the appointment of the country's leadership at the 20th Congress not based on competence, but on loyalty to the "core party", i.e. Xi Jinping, could lead to serious destabilization. This happened even sooner than anyone expected.


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