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Repression or Reform: The Difficult Decisions Facing Xi Jinping In The Face Of Unrest

Updated: Mar 5

Deep Dive Article

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"The seed of revolution is repression."

-Woodrow Wilson, 1919.

The carefully curated image of stability, security and order projected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is beginning to crack. What started as small-scale protests, only rumoured to be taking place on social media, has transformed into nation-wide demonstrations of public disapproval against the government. In a bizarre, and seemingly erratic turn of events, videos from the Chinese mainland have emerged, depicting unrest on a scale not seen since Tiananmen Square.

The astounding anti-government demonstrations taking place across the country, from Shanghai to Beijing, shatter any illusion of the infallibility of Communist Party rule. With alleged disgruntlement among China’s political class over the recent appointments to the Chinese central committee, coupled with the current unrest across the country, the government faces a previously unimaginable situation. How the Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping, chooses to approach this complex political climate could determine the future of Communist Party rule in China.

The Illusions of Liberalisation

For decades, the Chinese Communist Party has ruled China with an iron fist. Political dissent is squashed, religious freedoms are restricted, and any notion of liberalisation is non-existent. Repression is an instrument of the state, and the state has mastered its use. The CCP has carefully established a surveillance network stemming from the sprawling metropolis of Beijing to the rural south-western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet.

In the 1980s, however, the picture was a lot less gloomy. There was a general sense of optimism in the air, as leader Deng Xiaoping opened China up for foreign investment. For decades, under his predecessor, Mao Zedong, China was ostracised and seen by the West as a pariah state. Mao’s less-than-successful attempts at agricultural reform, in the shape of the Great Leap Forward campaign in the 1950s, had disastrous effects. His policies decimated China’s economic output and the Cultural Revolution uprooted the country’s traditional social structures. Therefore, when a reformer emerged in Beijing, in the form of Deng Xiaoping, he was met with jubilation. Deng promised to liberalise the Chinese economy and raise living standards for all, in his strive for modernity.

It was not to last. In 1989, following the success of Deng’s socio-economic reforms, students and activists across China saw an opportunity for political change to be enacted. As demands turned into demonstration, and demonstrations into protests, the winds changed. In the face of mass unrest, and pressure both internally and from abroad to liberalise the political system, the CCP pressed down the brakes. The student protests were violently suppressed, culminating in the infamous incident at Tiananmen Square in 1989, whereby soldiers and tanks were used to disperse demonstrators, and fired fatally into the crowds.

The Chinese government has learnt its lessons. As the Chinese economy has developed, so has the state’s ability to repress. The CCP has employed a surveillance network of hundreds of millions of facial recognition cameras across the country. Mass detention centres for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province continue to be developed. The suppression of all anti-government literature, imagery and rhetoric is routine. And this is all orchestrated by a network of loyal communist cadres, police, and informants.

For the past few decades, protests in the Chinese mainland have been censored by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, the Guoanbu. This is the central organ of the Chinese surveillance state. The government maintains stringent control of all media and communications going in-and-out of the country, creating real difficulty for journalists and human rights groups alike to gather information. Yet, despite this centralised control over the flow of information out of the country, news of the current unrest has spread like wildfire.

What Caused the Recent Unrest?

It all began in Xinjiang province on Friday night, when ten people were killed in an apartment building fire amid illiberal Covid Lockdown restrictions. It is rumoured that people inside the building block were unable to escape, owing to the strict lockdown protocol. Soon after the blaze, hundreds took to the streets to protest the Covid restrictions. Videos slowly started appearing on WeChat, the Chinese state-sanctioned social media platform, before spreading to Western media. Footage from Urumqi, the regional capital of Xingjiang, show residents marching outside government buildings and calling for an end to lockdowns.

The dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic has slowly been brewing in recent years, as many Chinese citizens have spent months on end in absolute isolation and confinement. The government has pursued an absolutist policy of ‘Zero Covid’. The drive to avoid any outbreaks of the disease has resulted in businesses being closed, tens of millions of people being thrown into periodical lockdowns, and the establishment of quarantine camps across the country for those who break the rules. This approach has raised eyebrows among investors and foreign diplomats alike, owing to its devastating impact on the Chinese economy.

Lockdowns have occurred in cities across the country, but most importantly in the cities of Shenzhen, a massive technology hub, and Shanghai, the manufacturing, trade, and financial hub. The willingness of the CCP to close these economic powerhouses without a moment’s hesitation has caused concern among foreign investors and has severely debilitated China’s economic output. China’s economy has only grown by 3.9% over the past year, compared with its predicted target of 5.5% for 2022. The social impact has been monumental too. As unemployment rises, and China’s property market weakens as a result of the stringent Covid restrictions, the disillusionment with CCP rule continues to grow.

Why is the Unrest Significant?

In recent days, what would usually be an isolated, and controlled event in the Chinese mainland, has grown exponentially into a wider political issue. Protest and demonstrations have quickly spread to the Beijing and Shanghai. As if jumping on the rare opportunity to speak out, chants of “Need human rights, need freedom” have been heard across the financial hub, displaying the deep-rooted agitation in the country. Even more striking were the demonstrations on Sunday calling for Xi Jinping to step down. Such overt dissent is extremely rare in the totalitarian state.

The situation is reminiscent of the pre-Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Those protests were originally disorganised and relatively unplanned, but slowly developed into a movement, with more cohesive aims. The Chinese government is acutely aware of this, and the grave danger such demonstrations present to the party’s rule.

Chinese Government officials have denied the scale of the protests, and state-run media has not covered the demonstrations. Despite the image of nonchalance portrayed by the central government, the reality is harder to

disguise on the ground. Local authorities in Shanghai and Beijing have amped up their police presence, erected barriers on roads and have deployed armoured vehicles in areas of unrest, seemingly in preparation for continued protest. Footage of police pushing, dragging, and beating protestors has emerged in various towns and cities. A BBC journalist, Edward Lawrence, was arrested in Shanghai for documenting the violence, and was “beaten and kicked by the police”.

What Happens Now?

Despite the excitement of the international media, it’s likely that the demonstrations will blow over. The Chinese government has perfected the art of suppression to the tee. The muted response from the U.S. State Department, highlights the pessimistic outlook maintained by many international observers. Whilst the U.N has urged the Chinese government to respect the peaceful protestors, there has yet to be any solid reaction from the global community.

Regardless, the events taking place in China this week are a huge embarrassment to the CCP. The image of steadiness and stability projected by the government has been hampered, putting Xi himself in a precarious position. The Chinese leader's recent moves to secure a third term in office and pack the Politburo’s Standing Committee with loyalists has left him alone in the wild. He has made strives to solidify his position and has even taken efforts to create a cult of personality, taking steps right out of Mao’s playbook. The reasons for this are clear; Xi is on a mission to secure complete dictatorial powers. So, the question must be asked, how does the allegedly infallible leader respond to such a calamitous failure?

The Chinese Premier has taken a huge gamble with his Zero-Covid policies, and to back down now and reverse policy would only be perceived as weakness. Therefore, it’s not inconceivable to imagine Xi taking a leaf out of the history books and following Deng Xiaoping’s example. In the face of internal opposition, and public unrest, a show of brute force could be just the trick needed to solidify his position. After all, the CCP model only works on the premise of complete state control. How Xi proceeds from here could determine the future of the party. Whether the unrest continues, or simmers away, the events of this week have displayed to the world the discontentment laying just beneath the surface in Chinese society.

Xi must tread carefully as he navigates this precarious, and uniquely complex political mess. A show of force could solve the problems in the short-term, but risks simply delaying any calls for reform until the next crisis arises. Equally, any liberalisation or policy backtracking from Xi would jeopardise both his, and the party’s position. One thing is clear, all the world eyes are on the Chinese leader, as the international community waits in muted anticipation for his next move.


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