Chinese people express their thirst for freedom

Demonstrations are growing across the country against drastic health measures. Political mismanagement suggests power struggles.

On a sheet of A4 paper, an equation in ballpoint pen. Friedmann’s in this case. It is not so much the question of general relativity that is raised, but rather that of being fed up. And the oral distortion of the Russian physicist’s name, making it sound like “free man”. The equation is brandished in the heart of the prestigious Tsinghua University (Beijing), considered to be the crucible of the future national elites. The students, like hundreds of people across China, are taking part in the movement for the easing of restrictions linked to the “zero Covid” strategy.

A movement not seen since 1989

While protest movements are not uncommon in China, this time it is their simultaneity that is striking. Also, the youth of the demonstrators and the emergence of slogans questioning President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

From Shanghai to Wuhan, the population is expressing its weariness in the face of strict confinements – one case in a residence can lead to the confinement of all the inhabitants – and the ubiquitous rules of repeated tests with queues stretching for hundreds of metres or more. People are tired of these measures which refer to the social control of populations.

“This is a movement that has not been seen since 1989 (the date of the Tiananmen Square uprising). The demonstrations seem spontaneous, even if messages on social networks call for a rally,”

explains Franck Pajot, a teacher at the French high school in Beijing for the past fifteen years.

A trade unionist and elected councillor for French people abroad, he has not been able to return to France for the past three years due to health measures.

In Shanghai, the Zero Covid strategy undermines the social contract

In a connected world, politics has evolved since Tiananmen. There have been heavy-handed arrests in Shanghai, where police used pepper spray on Saturday 26 November to apprehend 300 people gathered in Middle Urumqi Road. They were paying tribute to the ten people who died in Ürümqi (Xinjiang) the previous Thursday in a fire in a residential building. This tragedy was at the origin of the national protests against strict confinement.

The images of the World Cup in Qatar also had an effect and fuelled resentment about the strict measures that have been in place in China for almost three years.

“Even if people think that the Zero Covid policy is effective and necessary, they saw the whole world without masks in the stadiums, circulating normally,”

observes Franck Pajot.

In Shijiazhuang (Hebei), for the past two weeks, it has no longer been necessary to show negative tests to use transport or go to a shop. As a result, some residents have shut themselves away in their homes. The reaction shows that the fear of the epidemic is still alive. Especially since the lifting of restrictions in some places led to an epidemic outbreak and 40,000 new cases on 26 November. A drop in the bucket compared to China, but the under-vaccination of the elderly and the ineffectiveness of national vaccines is forcing the authorities to be cautious.

Numerous arrests at home or in the workplace

On the banks of the Liangmahe River, which runs through the centre of Beijing, there were large police deployments, with reinforcements continually being added as the hours passed, but the crackdown did not degenerate as it has in Iran.

“There were attempts to arrest people but the crowd movements protected the leaders”,

Franck Pajot comments.

According to several testimonies, in Beijing, the police is currently arranged in cordon but very calm and no riot squad has been deployed. However, many arrests were made afterwards at the homes or workplaces of the demonstrators, who were recognised thanks to surveillance cameras or images broadcast on social networks. A real but discreet repression, therefore.

The ban on demonstrations and the risk of life imprisonment attest to the courage of the demonstrators. “In the rallies, the atmosphere is charged with emotion. There are long periods of silence until a demonstrator starts shouting a slogan hostile to the government, to the Covid tests or in favour of freedom”, notes Franck Pajot.

For the time being, direct criticism of central government and Xi Jinping remains sporadic. It is mainly the local governments that are being questioned.

The demonstrations coming from the middle classes of the big megacities as well as from migrant workers from the countryside (mingongs), from the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, the main assembler of the iPhone in China, attest to the fact that the anger transcends social classes.

“This is undoubtedly a new fact,”

says sociologist Jean-Louis Rocca, a professor at Sciences Po and researcher at CERI.

At Foxconn, the payment of wage arrears has crystallised the movement. In some provinces, teachers and bus drivers are also demanding their pay. A point that attests to the financial difficulties of some provinces.

“The Zero Covid crystallises a pre-existing frustration: the daily tests and the policy of confinement make daily life unbearable,” says Jean-Louis Rocca. The sinologist thus invites us not to make any plans about the contestation of the government. According to him,

“the demand for free expression should not lead to the conclusion that the population is calling for another political system”.

Differences in the implementation of the “zero Covid” strategy in different provinces

While the 20th CCP Congress in mid-October gave a glimpse of a political apparatus under the complete control of Xi Jinping, the reality seems to be more contrasted. This is illustrated by the differences in the application of the “zero Covid” strategy in the different provinces.

“There is some hesitation at the national level,” observes Jean-Louis Rocca. For the researcher, the current movement is indicative of a deeper malaise and the “undermining of the model for building a vast middle class”. Thanks to the economic slowdown, young people are questioning the values inherited from previous generations who sweated blood and water to escape their condition. Until then, a pact with the authorities prevailed: political stability in exchange for social ascension.

Today, two to three strikes break out daily in the country, which testifies to social tensions linked to economic redistribution.

“The attachment of the Chinese to stability is an old value. There is a strong conservatism and even the most critical of the party know that the fall of power would obviously lead to internal struggles that would lead to chaos and terrible conflicts between regions,”

concludes Jean-Louis Rocca.

An equation never solved by Friedmann.

This text has been first published in French by l’Humanité, who is Cross-Border Talks’ partner in the frame of transform!italia-led Media Alliance.

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