Xi Jinping's House is on Fire
The Chinese dictator faces a serious challenge from the streets
In the wake of Xi Jinping’s remarkable power play at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, where he cemented his leadership with an unprecedented third presidential term, and dispensed with even the possibility of any rival faction existing at the apex of Chinese power, he had reason to feel confident. Along with securing his third term, Xi stacked the politburo with allies personally beholden to him, and used the congress to cleanse the party of any alternative power source.
It was a masterclass in authoritarianism.
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The stunning removal of the elderly Hu Jintao, a comparatively liberal predecessor, seemed to speak volumes about the brutal state of affairs within China’s murky elite politics. Although Chinese officials said it was a health issue that led to his ouster, it looked rather more like a ritual humiliation, a deliberate flex, as the former president was led out of the carefully choreographed proceedings in front of whirring cameras.
The message was clear. This was Xi Jinping’s party, and nation; no one could afford to challenge him, no matter whom. He would brook no dissent, not even from a former president. It was a statement to the world.
The Chinese people, however, seem unhappy with this arrangement, and much else, and are taking to the streets en masse tonight.
Thus, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong suddenly has a very serious problem, as grassroots protests erupt across the nation, in response to the death of 10 people in a fire in Xinjiang, and against the draconian “zero covid” protocols many protestors believe caused those deaths. These rare public outbursts have already blossomed into an increasingly direct challenge to Xi Jinping’s stifling dictatorship, as the protestors seize the moment to try to pry freedom from the communist machine’s claws.
They’re calling for the rule of law, for Xi Jinping to step down, for political freedom. Analysts believe the Chinese leadership has failed to appreciate how deeply people loathe the restrictions on their lives, partly because of a lack of freedom of speech. It seems China’s leaders are given to believing their own propaganda, like dictatorships everywhere.
Of course, China’s formidable security apparatus won’t just wither away and die. Rather, it will fight back ferociously, murderously. The last time the Chinese people rose up in 1989, they were slaughtered at Tiananmen square, a shameful event that has been blacked out by Chinese censors and from official history, if not the minds of ordinary Chinese citizens. As protests rock China tonight, there’s every reason to believe that China’s current leadership will go even further to maintain their iron grip on power, no matter the cost in lives.
It’s something of a fitting irony that these protests began in Xinjiang, the regional showcase of China’s bespoke brand of high tech repression. It’s there that China has implemented a system of totalitarian political control perhaps unrivaled in history; biometric measurements, enveloping surveillance that would make George Orwell blush, and a modern gulag network of sites imprisoning scores of Chinese citizens in need of “political reeducation.” It’s an astonishing level of control, like something out of a futuristic thriller.
Of course, it’s no secret that the Chinese government represses Uyghers, muslims, and anyone else who dares to challenge the status quo, by dint of identity or political belief. However, Xi Jinping has updated and adapted this system to enforce utterly oppressive “zero covid” protocols, particularly as China’s vaccine proves subpar compared with Western versions, and infection flares wildly.
But this system of smothering control has now leapt out of Beijing’s grasp, becoming a political firestorm that stretches from Beijing, Shanghai, and back to Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang. For the regime, it’s perilous.
It began when 10 people burned to death in a fire in an Urumqi high-rise, victims which included three children, and triggered the largest protests seen in China in years. The protesters believe that China’s harsh “zero covid” restrictions led to these deaths, and with good reason, given the experience of many being literally welded shut into their dwellings, effectively imprisoned by the state, alongside mass testing, enforced quarantine centers, and bans on travel. Citizens in Shanghai have gone without food, at times, as the authorities seal off entire neighborhoods for weeks to dampen infection.
However, the Chinese people seem to have had enough.
Chinese officials have denied that covid protocols were at all related to the 10 deaths, saying some “residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” pouring more gasoline on what is already a raging political fire. The protesters began by protesting the harsh covid restrictions, but have ended up decrying China’s pervasive censorship, and lack of political freedom.
University students are holding up blank signs of paper, a tactic also used by Russian dissenters to cry out against censorship during protests against Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, Beijing’s erstwhile ally. Still, Chinese authorities generally clamp down quickly and decisively on such dissent, retaining an incredibly tight grip over the country at large.
Apparently, that control has evaporated in the span of only a day or so, as China’s youth has come out to chant, “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression!” The fact that these protests have spread so widely, and so quickly, is a testament to the amount of sheer rage built up in the streets.
In a pointed message to Beijing, people in Chengdu screamed, “We don’t want lifelong rulers,” and “China doesn’t need an emperor!” Xi Jinping has certainly gotten the message, though it’s unclear at this stage if or how he’ll react. Perhaps he might mitigate some of the harsh “zero covid” restrictions, and thereby potentially appear weak, or simply double down on violent repression, and risk further fanning the flames.
The latter seems likely. Police are already clashing violently with protesters, arresting and dispersing fast growing crowds, spreading from city to city. While it’s far too early to say if these protests will threaten Xi’s grip on power, to say nothing of the entrenched communist regime, there are signs that these protests are a serious venting of long-stifled rage, the consequences of a lack of freedom of speech.
It’s unclear what might come next.
Unfortunately for Xi Jinping, the harsh covid restrictions are something of a personal issue (along with the battle against official corruption). He may have a difficult time relenting, and easing restrictions, without appearing to be weak.
Certainly, Xi will jealously guard his political authority, his dictatorship, and communist control over every conceivable facet of modern Chinese life. While in office, Xi has doubled down on communist control, ideological purity, and the prerogatives of his dictatorship, expanding the state’s remit, and its dominance. He’s established a powerful cult of personality, along with what amounts to his leadership for life, much like Mao.
The 69 year old Xi Jinping has taken his lessons from Russia, and specifically the communist party’s collapse in 1991. He understands that Gorbachev doomed the Soviet Union when he instituted glasnost, essentially coming to terms with reality, and abandoning party orthodoxy, and control over information. Political control soon followed.
The lesson? Political concessions destroy dictatorships.
In other words, it’s highly unlikely that Beijing will at all loosen controls, beyond perhaps undertaking a cosmetic redress of specific hated “zero covid” complaints. They won’t voluntarily relinquish control over information, history, speech, political freedom, or anything else, not without a bitter fight.
Those freedoms will need to be snatched from the communist party’s grip by force. They won’t come easily, or cheaply.
Rather, such an effort will likely require lives, and bloodshed.
Democracy always costs dearly. As the Chinese people struggle for their freedom, I send my regards.
Freedom is worth fighting for.