This is the fourth in a series of assessments on Xi Jinping’s leadership as he embarks on his third term. The first report examined Xi’s political standing, the second discussed societal resistance to his leadership, and the third focused on Xi’s economic policy. If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at email@example.com.
China Watch: COVID Protests
Overwhelming police presence in major Chinese cities has prevented large protests, although social media posts suggest citizens are regrouping and looking for opportunities to stage another round of major protests. As of the evening of 1 December local time, small anti-lockdown protests were observed in individual neighborhoods in several Chinese cities, according to social media posts relayed from China. Heavy government censorship indicates that these small protests are likely underreported. There have been no reported protests or public gatherings related to the 30 November death of former leader Jiang Zemin. Some Chinese social media comments compared Jiang favorably to Xi, but they were quickly deleted.
Statements from China’s security chief indicate that Beijing is taking a hard line against protestors and is counting on the surveillance state to quash dissent.
- On 28 November, Politburo member Chen Wenqing, China’s top official overseeing the security and law enforcement portfolio, described the protests as the results of “infiltration and sabotage” by “hostile forces” and vowed to stamp out these illegal actions.
- The authorities have arrested many protestors, although the precise number is not known. The security services are using online surveillance, closed-circuit TV footage, and facial recognition software to identify protestors. Universities are threating to expel students who protest.
- According to social media posts, China is also deploying plain-clothes police officers who likely belong to the Political Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and its local branches to ferret out protest organizers. These officers tend to use harsher tactics than regular police officers. The MPS is led by Wang Xiaohong, a close Xi ally.
Meanwhile, local officials in major cities have relaxed some COVID control measures after the protests, although it is unclear if these incremental changes represent a larger shift in policy. On 30 November, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees the public health portfolio, said that the current Omicron strain is less lethal and that China’s COVID prevention is evolving. Sun made these comments at a conference of health experts.
Western media has interpreted her statements as indicators that China is ready to pivot away from “zero- COVID.” However, Sun is not in Xi’s inner circle and is retiring in 3 months, and Xi earlier this year overruled a recommendation from health experts against lockdowns. China is currently experiencing a new wave of COVID infections, and Beijing is likely to pay close attention to spikes in COVID deaths before making significant changes. Xi has long argued that China will not tolerate significant spikes in COVID-related deaths.