Protests spread to China’s flagship Tsinghua University, alma mater of Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao. This is outside the Zijing dining hall.
After a decade and a half of democratic backsliding around the globe, suddenly citizens in the world’s two superpowers are asserting their human rights and demanding more freedoms. These are China’s largest national protests since the military killed thousands of protesters on June 4, 1989. Now young people are protesting Xi Jinping’s zero-covid policy which essentially put over 1.4 billion Chinese citizens under house arrest for almost four years. Humans are the same everywhere, and we desire the same things: food, security, socializing with loved ones, dignity, and freedom. Elites seek to divide and rule people by appealing to our “narcissism of small differences,” especially regarding gender norms, religion, and the caste system called race. But what we have in common is much stronger than what divides us. The extreme bravery of the Chinese people builds on the success of US voters in the midterms, where democracy prevailed against the autocratic attempts of the twice-impeached former president Trump.
Trump left office in disgrace after a deadly coup attempt aimed at overthrowing democracy in the United States and after losing the 2020 election to President Joe Biden, and is now desperately launching a 2024 presidential run in a foolish attempt to avoid going to prison for incitement of insurrection. When Xi eliminated term limits in China, elites there reacted with the same fear, sorrow, and worry in their eyes as when Trump, a minor Russian oligarch, was elected to the presidency in 2016. Putin got his revenge on the Obama Administration, which he blamed for the 2011 anti-Putin protests energized by the Arab Spring that year. Ever since the Arab Spring, autocrats in Asia have attempted to rollback the growing civil society of the internet.
Democracy gained momentum across the globe this year when the young democracy of Ukraine stood up to Putin’s genocidal invasion. Lula’s defeat of the fascist Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election this fall added oil to the flames of democracy. Democracy won the 2022 United States midterm elections. Unlike Xi, President Joe Biden handled COVID-19 so well it became a non-issue politically by the voting period. Two years into a United States President’s term, voters typically punish the incumbent party for ideological overreach. This time voters punished the opposition Republican Party for autocratic overreach, revitalizing US democracy and capping a historic year which saw left-wing parties in control of all major countries in the Americas for the first time. But left and right do not mean the same thing in all places: as Hannah Arendt said, “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” For this reason, conservatism in Communist countries comes from the Left. While Xi was initially believed to be a right-wing, liberal reformer he almost immediately worked to rehabilitate Mao in order to build a leftist cult of personality around himself. Xi launched an anti-corruption drive against all rival factions in the party, until he was powerful enough to eliminate term limits and make himself ruler for life. Xi is the first Chinese leader in decades who promotes China as an autocratic model for other countries, having ditched Deng’s foreign policy maxim of “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” In his second term, Xi Jinping eliminated term limits, Hong Kong autonomy and began an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples. In this sense, he truly is a second Stalin, whose genocide of Kazakhs from 1930-1933 reduced them to a minority in their titular Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR for the rest of the twentieth century.
Fittingly it was in Ürumqi, capital of Xinjiang, where these protests originated. Xi’s genocidal concentration camp policy turned Xinjiang into a giant prison, and this year the province had been under the most intense and longest lockdown in all of China. Xi’s zero-covid lockdown can best be compared to placing 1.4 billion people under house arrest. A deadly fire in an apartment skyscraper killed ten people, who were not allowed out of the building in the name of the zero-covid policy. Protesters gathered on Shanghai’s Ürumqi road, and spread to cities and universities across the country. Some even called for Xi and the Communist Party to step down from power, and protesters are now testing the limits of their newfound power of the people.
Freedom from dictatorship is more important than the Francocentric left/right analysis of politics. After World War II, the Soviet Union annexed western Ukraine, which had previously been under Austrian and Polish rule. Discontent with being ruled from Moscow for the first time spread from west Ukraine to east Ukraine when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced freedom of speech as part of his glasnost reforms. Over 91% of Ukrainians voted for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, which spelled the end of the Soviet Empire. Without their fellow Slavs in Ukraine, Russia would be outnumbered by Turkic peoples in a democratic socialist USSR and so Russia and Ukraine teamed up to dissolve the USSR.
Ironically it was Stalin’s imperial expansion which doomed the Soviet project. If Stalin had not annexed western Ukraine, it is conceivable Russia and Ukraine could have remained in an unequal union just as England and Scotland are today. Xi wanted to crush liberty in Hong Kong to ensure he would rule for life. Instead the desires for liberty spread from west Ukraine to Moscow, from Hong Kong to Beijing. In 2019 the protesters in Hong Kong held up blank pieces of paper in protest. This dissent illustrates the lack of freedom of expression in the new totalitarianism of Xi Jinping. Everyone can project their specific discontent on a blank piece of paper, which originated in a Soviet joke about arresting dissidents distributing blank pieces of paper. When the dissident protested, the police responded it was illegal since “everybody knows what the problems are.” Antiwar protesters in Russia this year also adopted the tactic. The standard size of paper in China led to some protesters calling this the #A4Revolution. Time will tell, but these protests forever change the narrative of China’s rise to superpower status.
The A4 Revolution? China’s Largest Protests in Decades Rebukes Xi’s One-Man Rule
Let’s review how China got here. Since he came into power Xi Jinping busily set about turning himself into dictator-for-life. Mao’s China was more totalitarian than Stalin’s Soviet Union or North Korea. To forestall another Mao, his successor Deng Xiaoping instituted term limits and economic reforms. But Xi, who followed Hu Jintao, returned the state to the center of Chinese economic life, crowding out their private economy.
Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao won some trust via his relatively transparent handling of the early 2000s SARS outbreak. But Xi’s secretive autocratic governing style mishandled the 2019 Sars-Cov-2 outbreak, also known as Covid-19. However, the even more inept handling of the pandemic by the Trump Administration, accompanied by Trump’s racist campaign scapegoating a Chinese lab as the source of the outbreak, bolstered Xi domestically as he won a third term at this year’s 20th Party Congress. When Xi recently ejected Hu from the Congress when the latter appeared angry that his proteges were all forcibly retired, the most powerful members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee pretended not to notice their former bosses’ existence. Xi’s control is more absolute than any Chinese leader since Mao — his control of the armed forces actually exceeds Mao’s. There were whispers how Hu did the bidding of his predecessor Jiang Zemin’s, but now Xi has over 1.4 billion people in his solitary grip. At least, he thought he did.
Xi, Putin, and Trump share a strongman style of leadership which mostly consists of being congratulated by yes-men while careening from one crisis to another. As these leaders get high on their own supply of propaganda, they lose sight of reality and these crises become increasingly ones of their own making. After two years of isolation, Putin convinced himself Xi’s support would be enough to take on Ukraine despite Trump not being around to dismantle NATO. Putin miscalculated and invaded shortly after a bilateral meeting with China after the 2022 Winter Olympics affirmed the two nations were in a quasi-alliance; the term used was “friendship without limit.” Years of getting away with genocidal behavior in Syria and Chechnya convinced Putin he could do the same in Ukraine without any repercussions. Putin was wrong. While Xi clearly wants to obtain control over Taiwan in order to eclipse Mao Zedong in internal Communist Chinese historiography, the Chinese people are tired of Red Emperors. Xi broke the unspoken contract Deng Xiaoping made with the Chinese people with his 1978 reforms: we will raise your standard of living and ensure another Mao never rises again.
The Chinese Communist Party cannot admit mistakes. For this reason, China remains locked in a zero-Covid limbo due to Xi’s nationalist refusal to use more effective means against omicron than Chinese mRNA boosters. Expectations that controls would ease following Xi’s coronation in the Party Congress which just happened were unmet. US Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci recently noted lockdowns are supposed to be a temporary measure until vaccines are available. But Xi was too proud to import vaccines. Rage has been building for years against Xi, who everyone fears but few seem to like. Xi may have wanted to wait out the winter since China does not have herd immunity against the virus until the next Lianghui dual sessions of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in the spring of 2023.
But the Chinese people are tired of the lockdown and don’t want to wait that long. Rare open protests against the Party, Xi himself, and zero-covid policies broke out in Shanghai, Ürumqi, and other Chinese cities on November 26, an extremely unusual and rare public defiance in a totalitarian state. Ürumqi authorities announced they would reduce their lockdown, as a concession to protesters. It is too early to tell what will happen, but this is an extraordinary event not seen since the Revolutions of 1989. Before the Fall of European Communism, people who expressed “preference falsification” lied about supporting the communist regime, not wanting to disappear. But once they perceived a revolutionary change, they suddenly switched to supporting the revolution. A mixture of genuine enthusiasm and fear of being punished by a new government governs this switch. There is strength in numbers, and it remains to be seen if Xi’s Internet Iron Curtain can break the solidarity everyone in China is experiencing after three years of lockdowns and quarantines. Some Han Chinese protesters expressed support for the beleaguered Uyghurs and the women-led Mahsa Amini protests in Iran. So far 2022 is a revolutionary wave, but we will see if it is immediately successful like Europe in 1989, or if it ends in bloodshed as China did that year. I am confident that China will democratize this century.
Perhaps now it’s time.
Jordan Rosenberg Cobos is a historian, journalist, cartographer, and writer. He/they graduated from the Tsinghua-Johns Hopkins Dual Degree Masters in 2020 and currently lives in California.