AMAC Exclusive – Daniel Berman
Having triggered significant controversy in the West, it is interesting that the 2022 World Cup may also have helped trigger one of the most serious protest movements China has seen for decades. The slogan on the ads for coverage of the World Cup in China was “中国第一，世界第二” which loosely translates to “China number one, the world number two.” This byline was run over video of cheering crowds of tens of thousands. It must have slipped the mind of whoever was in charge of state media that these cheering crowds of tens of thousands were not wearing masks, or locked in their homes. There could not have been a more dramatic juxtaposition between the message “China number one, the world number two,” and the reality facing the Chinese people, many of whom have been told that their children would have to attend school remotely for months.
The ill-conceived promotion of the World Cup was hardly the only cause of the protests that have broken out in China over the last two weeks, however. The immediate trigger was a fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, in which nearly a dozen died after being unable to escape and the fire department failed to quickly put out the fire – which according to at least some reports, was due to pandemic barricades blocking the path of fire trucks.
But the World Cup nonetheless helped crystalize the complaints driving the protests. The general feeling among the Chinese population is that the Chinese leadership is unconcerned with the plight of ordinary Chinese, is driven only by the perceived prestige of China on the world stage, and believes that the lives of Chinese citizens can be sacrificed, literally, to the pursuit of that image.
“Zero COVID,” or the policy that restrictions can only be lifted when COVID-19 has been eradicated, has come to symbolize this preoccupation. Officially, the policy is intended to save lives. The CCP justifies it as proof that China is more humane than the “capitalist West,” which the CCP claims sacrificed the lives of a million elderly and vulnerable citizens in America in the name of the economy. The message managed some resonance back in 2020 when certain elements of the Western elite who had always dreamed of technocracy contrasted China’s willingness and ability to mobilize all of society around “stopping the spread” with the laissez-faire attitude of the West. For them, it was proof of the superiority of the Chinese system, and the inability of the West to compete without copying Chinese autocracy.
Such voices have largely fallen silent now, instead begging for a COVID “amnesty.” The credibility of any message based around the premise that the CCP values human life above all other considerations was stretched already in the West, and events like the fire in Urumqi are so explosive precisely because they make the absurdity of such ideas clear to the Chinese people. It was not that 11 people died, or even that they died because of COVID-19 protocols on the part of the government. Rather, it is that they died through negligence, with officials not bothering to enforce their own codes about not blocking access to buildings. It destroyed the official rationale for “Zero COVID,” which was ostensibly to save lives.
What was left was the probable real motivation for continuing to pursue Zero COVID on the part of the Chinese government: Pride. The priority of China’s leaders is not to beat COVID-19, but to maintain the credibility of the Chinese model as an alternative to the West. That means that any policy they adopt to deal with COVID-19 has to be different from that of the West. This is one of the key reasons why China has rejected the use of Western vaccines, even when their own domestically produced vaccines proved ineffective. Accepting Western vaccines would mean acknowledging the superiority of Western science, and would send a message to Chinese client states around the world that they should hedge their bets, as even China still needed the West.
The same is true of lockdowns. The greatest obstacle to abandoning “Zero COVID” is the very fact that the West has long since done so. It would be one thing if China had adopted a herd immunity policy initially. In that case, the West would have been recognizing the superiority of the Chinese system by copying it. Instead, to abandon “Zero COVID” now would be to admit that the West was right. Worse, it would not be a concession to the strength of Western wealth and science as importing vaccines would be. The Western elites favored “Zero COVID” only marginally less than the CCP did. Instead, “herd immunity” was forced on Western leaders by the Western political and social systems which allowed a revolt by ordinary people, both in terms of civic non-compliance with restrictions and at the ballot box.
That is what made the World Cup coverage, as well as any coverage of large maskless crowds outside China going about their lives normally and enjoying themselves, so dangerous for the CCP. It was not just a rejection of China’s own policies, but of the system which produced them. It suggested that protest and civil disobedience actually were a good thing – especially when a government was disconnected, as the CCP portrayed Dr. Fauci and his allies in their own propaganda for the past two years when dueling with anti-lockdown activists.
While comparisons have been drawn with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, those have to a large degree been memory-holed in China. The Chinese talking about “democracy” and “freedom” are not quoting the exiles of 30 years ago, but rather the Western activists of the last three years. They are imitating the Canadian Truckers, which makes Justin Trudeau’s efforts to defend the right of the Chinese to protest all the more tone-deaf. They watched, on their CCP-controlled media, the truckers and many others denounce lockdowns in the language of freedom for three years. Instead of discrediting freedom and democracy, the anti-COVID protests in the West instead have served to vindicate it once the Chinese people began to draw connections between that rhetoric, and well, people being able to enjoy their lives without fear of a virus. The Chinese were taught to associate criticism of Dr. Fauci with “freedom of speech” and “democracy,” and have now associated the criticism of Dr. Fauci with the end of lockdowns, demanding their own lockdowns are lifted as well.
The protests demonstrate the irony of the CCP’s approach over the last three years. In trying to use anti-COVID protests to discredit “democracy” and “freedom of speech,” they have instead identified protests with accountability in the minds of the Chinese people, a far more potent force than whatever vague version of “woke liberalism” the Biden administration tries to sell them. By trying to play toxic nationalism with “China number one, the world number two,” the CCP highlighted how the Chinese government is failing to make its people feel like they are even remotely close to the number one priority.
There is an overlap in China with what is driving protests in Russia and Iran as well. As much as all three governments wish to portray the protests as foreign-inspired, they are organic movements demanding something more basic. Too basic, in fact, for the Biden administration, which believes the protestors lack either “leaders” or “concrete” political demands. They do have a demand – accountability. In Russia, protestors believe no one in the government is accountable to the parents of soldiers who were conscripted to fight in a war they were not consulted on, then issued weapons that do not work, then sent into combat without air support or supplies, all while their tax money is stolen. In Iran, demonstrators are protesting a political system where it is seen as disloyal for leaders to even consider their own popularity with the Iranian people, and top government officials abuse the people to earn the favor of one man.
Perhaps the reason Western elites cannot see this is because our own leaders, whether Biden or Trudeau, have forgotten or learned to fear the term “accountability.” For them, the government is a means to policy ends. They disagree with Xi Jinping, Putin, and Khamenei, not in the purpose of government, but rather its objectives. They believe in a different set of “universal values” and “objective truths,” but have only marginally more tolerance for those who dissent from them and resent the restrictions placed upon them in dealing with such dissidents. For Biden or Trudeau, the attractions of the West are increasingly esoteric woke abstractions, and parents protesting in school boards are a threat to that. The irony will be that, if the protest movements in Iran, Russia, and China take off, the inspirations for those freedom movements will not be the self-appointed “defenders of Democracy” in the West, but rather the populist riff-raff Western liberals declared democracy’s greatest threat.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.