Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its government seem to have taken the hard-line route since Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2012, much against the nation’s reforms and after its opening following the COVID-induced lockdown. The rigidity of the Xi Jinping government has resulted in China now being described as an authoritarian regime by the global community.
The Coronavirus that originated in China’s Wuhan lab, its rapid spread worldwide, and becoming a global COVID-19 pandemic is another reason for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese government to unleash more authoritarianism carried through its strict state surveillance.
China imposed a ‘Zero-Covid’ policy to prevent and contain the virus. The aim was to control virus outbreaks with minimal economic and social disruption.
This was implemented through early detention of COVID-19 cases through regular and overused PCR tests. People were required to keep a ‘normal’ COVID profile and a negative PCR test to access business or public facilities.
Those with potential or suspected cases were forcibly isolated at home, globally called quarantine, under a government-supervised facility for extended periods. Communications and movements were controlled by keeping tabs on the afflicted persons’ cell phones.
Even with one potential case, communities and entire cities were completely locked down, adding to the citizens’ misery. Even when other countries gradually relaxed their lockdown, China’s strict ‘zero-Covid’ policy remained stringent for almost two years.
It was reported that those with negative Covid tests were put under state quarantine while they were demanded to hand over their house keys for disinfection. This forced isolation was part of the state surveillance strategy.
Video footage of screams and cries of people forcibly locked in their homes or state isolation facilities due to the zero-Covid policy, faced with food shortages and lack of emergency medical care, haunted the world despite the Chinese government’s attempt at censorship.
In October 2022, a video surfaced on social media platforms and WeChat of a lone protester who climbed on Sitong bridge in Beijing’s Haidian district and draped two large banners, one calling the government to put an end to the harsh zero-Covid policy, and the second, calling for the overthrow of Xi Jinping.
The voice of a man chanting slogans into a loudhailer could also be heard in the video. This incident occurred on the eve of CCP’s Congress, which was scheduled to hand over the party leadership to Xi Jinping for the third time.
While state media, which is essentially controlled and censored by the Chinese government, turned a blind eye to this incident, the photos went viral on social media platforms, with people alluding to the bravery of the protesters.
However, swift state crackdown and censorship on social media followed, and it was reported that even social media accounts, including WeChat, were temporarily banned for those who shared photos and videos of the protest.
The trigger point, however, was the fire that broke out at an apartment in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, in November 2022 that claimed ten lives, as per Chinese government information. It is speculated that China’s strict zero-Covid policy that kept buildings and fire escape doors locked led to this fatality.
Even though Urumqi did not face a significant Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government imposed movement restrictions for about 100 days. Videos of the fire break went viral on Social Media platforms that showed a fire truck standing far away from the building, failing to extinguish the fire, sparking criticism and angry comments from viewers online.
The criticisms online soon escalated into mass protests as people hit the streets of Urumqi, and students across the country hit the streets to hold memorials to mourn the victims.
China’s youths saw a wave of civil disobedience on November 28, 2022, growing from increasing frustration spreading across China, including in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangdong.
The economic woes and the youth unemployment reached a record high due to the draconian governmental measures, culminating in a public outcry. Protesters carried blank sheets of A4-sized paper to represent the country’s strict censorship controls, providing no space for people to express their dissent.
The white paper sheet, therefore, was to voice against China’s strict zero-Covid policy, increasing authoritarianism in the process, and the lack of civil society voice in the country where people find no space to express their opinions.
This act of defiance was initiated by only one student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, which was soon joined by dozens and subsequently by hundreds. “All accusations are in our hearts,” essentially indicating decades of pent-up frustration of the people against the CCP and the Chinese government. This inability to voice their view continues irrespective of strict state surveillance and control to censor dissent of any kind.
The White Paper protest witnessed another remarkable aspect: People shouting slogans against Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, asking for their step down, indicating that the dissent is not limited to criticism of a government’s policy but the whole political system.
The nationwide silent protest, however, did not last long. Heavy police crackdown ensued via arrests and interrogation to quell dissent. However, the protest was a success. Days after the demonstration, the government announced the abrupt abandonment of the ‘zero-Covid’ policy in December 2022.
However, the drastic step added to the public woes as they were left suddenly unprepared to fend for themselves. Following this announcement, Xi Jinping strengthened its grip on power, and police opened investigations on the participants of the protests, harassing their family members and detaining them for weeks.
Many participants eventually fled the country to escape the crackdown. The police retaliation for a silent and peaceful protest received global attention.
The White Paper protest, therefore, signified the very presence of dissent and expression of defiance, considered a prominent display of the failure of Chinese authoritarian control.
Even though the authority managed to suppress dissent through its aggressive crackdown, like it always does, the very eruption of this protest was a significant incident since the 1989 Tiananmen Square, that too by youngsters for whom this was the first case of expression of public dissent against Chinese authoritarian rule.
Experts mention this as an undeniable challenge to Chinese Communist rule, indicating that dissent would further spread and continue to find its way to come to the fore as the situation demands and the condition reaches its boiling point or as and when there is a trigger event.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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