Authoritarian China hates dissent. Protests are a strict no-no for the Red Dragon. Yet, president Xi Jinping’s China is quaking now with widespread protests. Seething with anger, China’s younger generation and middle class are raring to uproot Xi’s regime. As China’s zero-covid policies double up as smokescreens for a declining economy, exhausted Chinese youth are taking to the streets. They are demanding Xi exits at once. Stern warnings of a sweeping crackdown are bouncing off the backs of determined students. The snowballing month-long protests are set to make the 1989 Tiananmen Square look like a small-time stir.

As impassioned protesters are unrelenting, Chinese police forces are getting harsher by the day. Their spot-checking and arbitrary rounding up are meant to break the backbones of the protesters. Though Xi and the Chinese Communist Party are putting up a brave front, they are not feeling comfortable within. Their growing fears could make them relax the draconian covid-19 diktats. Meanwhile, like all authoritarian regimes, Xi is riding on fake news and raising the bogey of foreign instigators. This is not working.

Rare Nationwide Uprising

Covid-distancing strictures are worsening the situation. Three years into a maddening mixture of suffocating lockdowns, relentless large-scale testing, overstretched central quarantines and oppressively intrusive contact-tracing and tracking, the 1.43 billion exasperated Chinese are pushing back now. The result is before Xi now: a rare nationwide uprising which calls for a change of rulers. As covid cases rise and China struggles to bridge the everwidening immunity gap, protesters’ anthem The Internationale is heard echoing in provinces across China.

Amidst this show of unified anger, Chinese police tap and keep tabs on people’s phones, messaging apps and virtual private networks. The characteristic Chinese censorship is being tightened further. The slowingdown Chinese economy is only adding fuel to the protest fires. While manufacturing dipped in November, eateries drowned in losses. Perhaps it was payback time for China, which was on overdrive for most of the past decade.

Across Demographic Groups

Despite this disorder, protesters are happy within. They hope the protests change the path China had chosen all these years. They hope their cries alter the way China is run. Protests began in Xinjiang and Shanghai, but now they are all over China. Xi is clueless about how to contain the protests.  In a desperate move, Xi is promising a liberal zero-covid policy, while cracking down on protesters at the same time. The Red Dragon is back with its classic blow-hot-blow-cold approach.

This is the most explosive expression of public anger since Tiananmen. The protests are spreading fast, across regions and demographic groups. The Party dreads such unified action from its people. Reason  why these protests are bad news for Xi. Public display of anger in Beijing and provincial capitals, including Chengdu, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, Urumqi and Wuhan, is feared to spread further wide into the interiors.

Targeted Surveillance Fails

The agnostic spread of the protests is a clear reflection on the Party’s surveillance and its efficacy. Neither Xi’s intelligence officers could sense the brewing trouble nor could they keep active tabs on China’s aspiring youth and middle class, despite the façade of an elaborate surveillance setup. Xi’s problem is his undying belief in targeted surveillance, which is ineffective for tracking protest activists.

Targeted intelligence is Xi’s tragedy for obvious reasons. When people pour out onto the streets with exit-Xi cries, focused and targeted surveillance systems, which include facial recognition cameras and artificial intelligence-aided social media monitoring, fail to do the magic in a mob of masked individuals. As Xi is bound to demonstrate his inability to monitor the protests, willy-nilly, he will encourage the protesters further. This is sure to bring in more agitators on to the streets. More prtotests will be Xi’s greatest undoing.

Dismal Statistics Much Publicised

As unrest intensifies, Xi is sure to explore ways to contain the calamity. He may try to veer away from his current policies. He may realize replacing real economic development with outdated orthodox ideology does not work. He may appreciate his command-and-control strategies are not potent enough to satisfy his people who are thirsting for freedom of speech and dissent.

Finally, Xi may begin to believe in China’s dismal statistics on its economy. China’s growth is chugging along in low gear and is forecasted at 3.2 per cent in 2022, against the 9.6 per cent of 2011. China’s real estate sector lies battered by scandals, which have caused major meltdowns in the personal wealth of his vast middle class. Finally, Xi may sit up to take notice.

As if these are not enough, economic and social costs are rising. A comparison with 2018 tells a grimmer story. Domestic flights in China are down by 45 per cent year-over-year, road freight is 33 per cent lower and traffic on city metros has fallen by 32 per cent. Joblessness among the urban youth has doubled to 18 per cent. One OECD estimate says China’s economic growth is bound to slow down further to 3.3 per cent in 2022.

Deep Down in the Ravines

Xi may even wonder now why was he least bothered about a sliding economy. Votaries of Xi may argue booting out covid-19, reasserting his indispensability and establishing China as a global superpower have been his top priorities. Thus, the sagging economy was nowhere in his urgency list. Despite his boot-out-covid priority, the virus has got to him with great fury and vengeance.

Despite his accelerated vaccination drives, covid has hit China again and again. Worse, as the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, Xi’s popularity is sure to plunge further. Predictably, the financial markets are headed south and may soon end further deep down in the ravines.

Millstones Around his Neck

Bad luck for Xi, he is now stuck between the horns of many existential dilemmas. How to relax the zero-covid policy and at the same time crack down on the protesters, stop covid’s onward march, dilute his authoritarian streak and yet remain China’s indispensable leader. All major dilemmas. Resolving such a mishmash of dilemmas is easier than done. Bad luck again, Xi turned China’s health issue into a personal political crisis. Caught between the covid devil and the deep sea of dire lockdowns, Xi will not be able to find a foolproof fix for his lose-lose situation. Sad, Xi invented the lockdowns and they have become the millstones around his neck today.

Xi deserves the blame for his own predicament. He is haughtily arrogant. His ego prevented him from sensing the storm brewing beneath. He is susceptible to delusions. Initial covid successes led him to believe he is invincible. He is megalomaniacal. A fast-growing economy made him  develop an exaggerated belief in his own power. The hubris will go now only before a holocaust.

A Movement for Democracy

This is not an exaggeration. The ongoing zero-covid stirs have the potential to turn into pro-democracy protests. The oppressed Chinese, who were crying ‘lockdowns out’ have begun screaming ‘Xi out’ already. Established epidemiologists are saying daily infections in China will soon hit a horrible high of 45 million, up from the 9.7 million confirmed cases to date, despite the zealous 3,464 million vax doses administered across China’s provinces. Sure, protesters will not return to their homes soon.

In fact, the scenario is more depressing for Xi. Demand for intensive-care beds are set to soar stiflingly to over 5.8 million hospital beds, many times the existing capacity. With asphyxiating lockdowns on one side and the relentless covid march on the other, the sandwiched Chinese are not going to take either of them lying down. The protests will accelerate in the coming days, only to end up as a movement for Xi’s exit and democracy’s entry.

The Simple Health Arithmetic

Xi’s antagonists may say his maniacal obsession with vaxxing the youth has left the old exposed to widespread infections. Only 66 per cent in the 80-plus age group has completed the primary series of covid vaccinations fully. Frighteningly, just about 40 per cent of this 66 per cent, which is 26.4 per cent of the aggregate octogenarians, has received the booster shot as on 11 November.  

This is sure recipe for certain infection and death, as these 80-plus people are more likely to perish compared to those who are younger. Chinese will not miss this foolhardiness in Xi’ approach. How can Xi, who loves to be called the conqueror of covid, afford to overlook this simple health arithmetic? Without vaxxing the old, what use in locking them down?

Need to Change Course

Add to this mindboggling madness, Xi’s aversion to imported vaccines and his extra emphasis on traditional cures. The crisis is just getting ready to blow up on Xi’s face. With the cardinal sin of not educating local health officials on the primacy of vaccinating, the blow-up will be catastrophic. For unknown reasons, Xi prefers lockdown to vaxxing. This has brought him to such a sorry pass. Inevitably, Xi is tasting today the fruits of his own misguided covid policies.

Xi and the Party have a way out of this crisis. They need to change course. Though they may not be able to undo all the damage, they can at least stop further damage by the protesters. Will Xi and the Party listen to the voices of the youth on the streets? Will Xi and the Communist Party realize democracy is the best vaccination for the fast-spreading virus of mass dissent? Will Xi and his henchmen stop equating adherence to Xi’s zero-covid polices with loyalty to Xi and the Party?

In Conclusion

This is how Xi is caught between the rock and the hard place. Halting the zero-covid policy will mean China running up mass covid infections and deaths. Continuing the zero-covid policy will mean prolonged agony for Xi in the form of protests, which are capable of consuming him eventually. Thus, the ongoing protests hold grave consequences for Xi, his dictatorial reign and his Party with a history of 73 years of authoritarianism.

Sounding empathetic here is the Hong Kong-based writer and columnist Li Yuan. On 29 November, she wrote pointedly in The New York Times: “A young Shanghai professional with the surname Zhang said Xi’s norm-breaking third term, secured at last month’s party congress, spelled the end of China’s progress and they all gave up their illusions.” The way China’s young and middle class protesters are progressing from shouts to sinew-flexing, from strength to greater strength, soon Xi will have to give up his.