While much attention has been paid to the unprecedented protests in China over the “zero-dynamics COVID” policy, not much has been written about the broader political context, and in particular the young people leading the protests.
These young protesters have proven to be nimble and always seem to be a couple of steps ahead of the authorities, who are desperate to prevent any uprising. In particular, they don’t want the wider world to know the extent of the protests.
There have been reports that at the heart of the protests is a call for greater political freedom, and these young people are using the zero-COVID policy as a platform to seek more openness. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has kept an eye on China since pandemic measures were first introduced in 2020.
President Xi Jinping has made zero-COVID one of his flagship programs, along with the “China Dream,” and used it to secure a record-breaking third term at the five-year Communist Party congress in October. All opposition was crushed, and nothing was allowed to derail his ascendancy.
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Now that Xi has cemented his status as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, why wouldn’t he relax the zero COVID policy in line with the rest of the world?
The easy answer would be that I would lose too much “face” if I backed out. I would suggest that Xi is really more concerned that relaxed policy will lead to more deaths among the elderly.
About 20% of the Chinese population is over 60, and the percentage is higher in rural areas where health services are poor. Most of the deaths from COVID this year are associated with the elderly. Vaccination rates among the elderly, especially those in rural areas, are significantly lower than the overall figure.
The latest figures released by the government show that in Shanghai, only 62% of over-60s are vaccinated, with 38% boosted. But in the most vulnerable age group over 80, that number dropped to just 15% fully vaccinated. You can imagine what the numbers would be like for those living in rural China.
Xi is simply unwilling to pay the political price for large numbers of elderly Chinese dying. Their grip on power may even be affected if there is a sudden spike in deaths due to COVID.
The political consequences should not be underestimated: unlike in the West, many elderly Chinese in rural areas live with their children. While large numbers of Chinese clearly want restrictions lifted, he will be blamed for the opening leading to more deaths.
So where does that leave us? On the one hand, it is clear that young people want more freedom and that restrictions be lifted, including more political freedom. The zero-COVID policy has proven to be the most effective platform to get their message across. There is a good chance that if the authorities are unable to curb or crush the protests, the next step will be nationwide protests where other disaffected groups join.
At this stage, Xi will likely have to deploy the full security apparatus, which will likely result in a large number of arrests of protesters. China has perfected the art of detaining an entire segment of the population for a period to cool the political temperature: the suppression of the Uyghurs is just one example.
Similarities with Iran
One cannot help but see parallels between what is happening in China and the protest movement in Iran.
In Iran, young people mobilized against the regime over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin. She died in custody three days after being arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code for women. Authorities deny she was mistreated, but she died while in custody.
The nationwide protests were led by young people and have now reached a stage where the entire regime is at risk.
At the heart of the protest is politics: Amini’s death was the trigger for young women, in particular, to take to the streets and demand political freedom from the theocracy. More than two months have passed since the protests began and there are no signs of slowing down.
China’s youth, like Iran’s, want political freedoms and reforms, and they want their voices to be heard and to act. They were looking for a trigger point and found it in the COVID restrictions.
Where to from here?
It would be foolish to guess what will happen next in China, or even in Iran. The inner workings of both regimes are opaque to the outside world. In China, Xi’s formidable political skills may be such that he can find a way out while he remains in power.
The danger is that the longer the protests continue, the more dangerous they become. Security forces in China are brutal, and their actions against protesters could easily get out of hand.
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The saddest thing about the protests in Iran and China is the inability of the outside world to do anything. In both cases, the regime can be completely ignorant of what the rest of the world thinks. Meanwhile, the world can only watch, in horror, and wait to see what happens next.