Artillery Row

The people sing

The Chinese have had enough of lockdowns

Many of the protesters who braved the cold and the police in China’s cities clearly haven’t had the occasion to demonstrate in a long time. Holding aloft their phones or blank pieces of paper, they hesitantly shouted out their improvised slogans, out of sync with one another, or something not at all. 

Often, they reverted to singing the few political songs everyone still knew by heart — the Internationale, Do You Hear the People Sing? or, far more provocatively, the Chinese national anthem, with its memorable opening line — Arise! Ye who refuse to be slaves! — words once banned for being insufficiently communist.

They represent … genuine frustration

China’s newest round of anti-lockdown protests will not topple Xi Jinping nor seriously shake the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on the country, which according to its own dialectics is simply the verdict of history and nothing less. But they represent the genuine frustration of a people whose most basic freedoms have been curtailed now for the third year running, with no end in sight.

The fire in an Urumqi high-rise whose doors were locked to prevent residents from sneaking out of lockdown, which killed 10 and wounded more, was ostensibly what ignited this wave of protests. But the catalyst could have been anything else, from the Guizhou quarantine centre bus crash which killed 27 to the death of the 3-year-old boy in Lanzhou who spent almost his entire life under lockdown, and who died because COVID prevention took precedence over any other form of healthcare.

The catalyst, in other words, could have been any of the thousands of daily indignities associated with the relentless pursuit of Zero Covid, which has long stopped being solely a matter for public health and become a political shibboleth, the irrefutable proof that that China’s political regime is superior to all others.

And for a long time, the fact that China had been spared, after the initial Wuhan outbreak, from the worst of this pandemic was a matter of genuine national pride to many, who looked askance at the high death tolls in the industrialized world.

But as the rest of the world learned to live with the virus, China’s government clung to the blunt force approach which characterises so much of its modern governance. Another lockdown, another round of testing, another spray of disinfectants, and all will be well, or at least that appeared to be the approach taken by Chinese authorities.

Now, its rulers are caught in a trilemma of their own making. The home-grown Sinovac vaccine works, but lags in effectiveness compared to Western ones, whilst immunization rates remain low, particularly among the elderly. For whatever reason, the Chinese government has so far refused to use its immense powers of coercion to encourage vaccination among the population, preferring to stick with lockdowns and mass-testing.

If China reopened tomorrow, the spike in infections is all but certain to kill thousands and potentially collapse the country’s healthcare system. Continued lockdown, however, will continue to devastate China’s economy and enrage an already-volatile population, creating further political instability ahead. 

A mass immunization campaign using imported mRNA vaccine technology, although perhaps the most straightforward way out from a purely public health point of view, seems to have been ruled out on political grounds. National pride apart, it is said that Xi considers relying on foreign medicines that way to be an unacceptable national security risk, and that seems to be as good an explanation as any.

What has led the Chinese government, whom many in the West fetishistically credit with thousand-yearlong time horizons and infinite reserves of foresight, to this predicament of its own making? China’s top decision-making process is notoriously opaque, and it is impossible for outside observers to offer anything but educated guesses. 

But what is certain is that just as China’s initial success at containing COVID enhanced the prestige of the Party, its refusal to adapt its approach in the face of overwhelming evidence has destroyed much of the credit it has gained among Chinese people.

This round of protests will not change much, but as long as the Chinese government persists unchangingly on its present course, it will increasingly hear the desperation and the anger of its people.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover