Column | Zero Covid policy and China’s growing unease over ‘Black Swans and Grey Rhinos’

China protests
Workers in protective suits keep watch behind a barrier at a sealed restaurant area, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China, November 26, 2022. Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song

The recent protests in China against lockdowns, frequent tests and other restrictions have assumed the nature of a revolt against the Chinese Government, which Xi Jinping had predicted four years ago. 

President Xi Jinping had said in a major speech at the Central Party School: “Be on guard against Black Swans and be watchful of Grey Rhinos.”

He noted that China’s national security and stability were under multiple threats from within and without. He warned against unforeseen incidents (Black Swans) and exhorted people to take steps to prevent known risks that are ignored (Grey Rhinos). His worst fears came true a couple of weeks ago when China was rocked by a revolt against his “Zero Covid” policy designed to prevent another outbreak of the deadly virus.

The measures were not new but steps which had proved successful like intensive tests, vaccinations and lockdowns.

It came as a shock to him that the people of China saw in his tough measures a danger to individual freedom.

Perhaps, they had seen in democratic countries, particularly the United States, people had defied regulations as violative of individual freedoms and even risked their lives.

People gather for a vigil and hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease restrictions, as they commemorate the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of the coronavirus disease continue in Beijing. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The resistance to the Covid policy became acute within days after Xi’s coronation and his triumphant visit to the Bali Summit, where he was the center of attraction. He moved around in Bali like an emperor as leaders were vying with each other to meet him. He even reprimanded the Canadian Prime Minister in public for revealing something he had shared with him earlier.

But when he returned home, he was taken aback by the ferocity of the public reaction against his Zero Covid policy.

It appeared like the 1989 unrest, which led to a massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square.

The trouble started on October 13, when an activist, disguised as a construction worker, put up posters on bridges. The posters condemned Xi’s Covid policy and exhorted people to unite against it. The policy was characterised as a challenge to individual freedom. “We do not need a leader, we need to protect people’s interests,” said one of the posters. The activist was named “bridgeman”, like the “tankman” who started the revolt in Tiananmen Square. The protests spread like wildfire and in many cities, demonstrations were held against lockdowns and widespread and repeated tests. Slogans were raised against the President himself. Although the government announced some concessions in Covid restrictions, they could not be implemented as infections rose in different parts of the country.

A fire in an apartment building on November 24 resulting in ten deaths were also attributed to Covid regulations as the occupants of the building could not escape because many of the exits were blocked. 

People hold signs during a candlelight vigil held for the victims of the Urumqi fire, in Shanghai, China November 26, 2022 in this picture obtained from a social media video. Photo: Gao Ming/via REUTERS

Many acts of cruelty of the Xi Government from 2012 were revealed during the protests and the situation appeared to go out of control. As part of dealing with the protests, restrictions were imposed on issuing passports to Chinese nationals.

Many people who wanted to go to Doha to witness the World Cup matches were disappointed. Even the facility for crowds to watch the game on giant screens was banned to avoid the spread of infections. There was no respite in the demonstrations even when the rate of infections rose and the government tried to deal with Covid and the protests at the same time.

In some university campuses, the protests took the shape of students holding up blank white strips of paper, as it had happened in the old Soviet Union. The point that they made was that since the reasons of the protests are well known, there was no need to have slogans written on the posters and invite arrests. This novel method angered the police as the students could not be arrested as they did not violate any rules.

In Shanghai and Beijing, demonstrations were held, demanding democracy and the rule of law.

The protesters did not have an identifiable leadership to guide them. Trouble erupted spontaneously in different parts of the country, as and when people felt provoked by lockdowns and restrictions of personal freedoms. Calls for protests spread on the internet and the situation appeared to go out of control. However, the fear of a Tiananmen Square model revolt disappeared and matters seemed to settle down. President Xi proceeded to visit Saudi Arabia on a very important mission.

The situation in China is unpredictable, even though the protests seemed to subside because of the relaxation of Covid rules on the one hand and the realization that infections might spread if all restrictions are withdrawn on the other. But the success of the protests in changing the Covid policy may prompt more protests in support of democracy and the rule of law.

Since Xi had placed his loyalists in key positions as part of the consolidation of his power, he could manage the crisis by a mix of firmness and flexibility. But it was clear that Black Swans and Grey Rhinos might appear again on the horizon, if the establishment did not remain vigilant.

The protesters, who have tasted success in achieving their objectives to some extent, might be encouraged to take calculated risks again.

A man gets tested at a nucleic acid testing site, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China, November 28, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song

China has long faced the difficulty in maintaining an open economic policy in a tightly controlled political system.

The remedy was to move towards a more controlled economic policy to ensure prosperity for all.

But such a policy restricted economic activities and generated discontent among the people. It remains to be seen whether Xi will be more open to strike a balance between politics and economics. The recent protests highlighted the Chinese dilemma on this matter in the coming years.

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