Not since 1989 has China faced a wave of national protests akin to what they are going through now. These nationwide protests have three meanings. Here they are.
First, these protests are neither local nor quickly dissipating, which means they betray something much deeper than concern over standards of living, mortgage company bankruptcies, or local disaffection.
What they are saying, without saying so, is that many have had it – enough of COVID lockdowns, stumbling economy, surveillance, and President Xi’s strongman Communism.
As the Wall Street Journal reported last week: “The protests put in stark relief the fraying of that social contract, showing that the climbing economic and social costs of China’s zero-COVID policies—coupled with an increasingly authoritarian regime’s zero-tolerance for dissent—have driven many to a kind of breaking point.”
Revulsion with Communism drove students into the streets 33 years ago, culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre. The protests are similar, national in scope. They reflect growing awareness by urban Chinese that what they face is unadulterated oppression – unlike elsewhere.
Second, the protests represent a political crisis for China’s Communist leadership. If they give in to public demands that lockdowns stop, protestors may believe they have the power to change the entire system – and COVID cases could widen their grip on China’s economy.
If they crack down and turn up oppression, that could trigger a mass reaction – confirmation that the public is not being heard and that Communism is what it has been: merciless and brutal.
So, the second meaning of these protests is a possible tipping point for China’s Communist Party and President Xi. Contrary to the emperor-for-life rhetoric of a month ago, Xi is at an unexpected intersection, tolerating public dissent and modest reform or all-out oppression.
That decision will offer insight into how China approaches the future, conceding legitimacy to public outrage, or pulling hard on the reigns as Mao did – brutally suppressing discontent.
Third, these protests suggest something larger. If it is hard to conceive the Chinese People throwing off the Communist yoke, this is a step in that direction. These protests, in a country that punishes protests severely, suggest that something deep is brewing.
Somewhere in the soul of the Chinese People a distaste with Communism is percolating, akin to how the Russian people detested Soviet domination. Where that will go, whether it will be suppressed and pushed underground again or perhaps begin to see light and get more running room, a different future seriously considered by some within Chinese society, is unclear.
What is clear is that President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party is confronting the largest, most widely subscribed, and potentially hard to dismiss uprising among average Chinese in decades. Where this leads remains, like much about modern China, an enigma. But that it is happening at all is promising, a sign of hope, and another indication that oppression is unstable.
China is far less stable than pundits and liberal media surmise, and this set of protests, whether they endure and expand or persist only for a time and are suppressed, tell us something that is at once obvious and profound: Chinese Communism, like all Communism, is illegitimate.