There’s been a recent increase in protests in China. The most recent protests erupted after a fire broke out in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi. Residents had been physically locked in their homes for four months. Firefighters were said to have not been let in to suppress the fire because of COVID protocols. When they did reach the apartment, many online indicated they couldn’t access the building because of locked doors. At least ten people died in the fires.
As we see in Iran, the death of one person can spark nearly a revolution, but Iran and China are very different, and both conflicts are ongoing. When we look at China, we tend only to understand it partially because we look at it with Western eyes. In this blog, we’ll explain the five things you need to understand about the protests in China and whether they could ever amount to anything.
#1 – What is China’s Zero COVID Policy?
The first thing to understand is the Zero COVID policy itself. China is following a policy it calls “dynamic zero” – taking action wherever COVID flares up to eradicate it. The Chinese government and policies are far different from most countries worldwide. Their COVID policies are different too. When other countries sought to open up after locking down, China went hard in the opposite direction.
People with COVID were placed under quarantine at government facilities or forced to isolate in their homes. Right now, the largest quarantine camp in China’s Guangzhou city is being built. It has 90,000 isolation pods. Internment, work, and re-education camps are common in China.
Some of the other rules of China’s lockdown are that all non-food shops must close in areas where infection rates are high. Businesses and schools are closed. Mass, mandatory testing is carried out in places where COVID has been reported, and lockdowns must occur until no new cases are reported. This all happens even if merely a handful of cases are reported.
Local authorities implement these strict lockdowns, and you don’t want to be a local authority in China. It’s not uncommon for mistakes to be made by local authorities or for things to fail to work, as they sometimes do. That could lead to the local authority being imprisoned and replaced. There has to be tremendous pressure to get it right, but there’s also broad autonomy to implement policies as one sees fit. So local leaders sometimes implement policy without fully understanding everything there is to know. This leads to some pretty heavy-handed draconian policies like randomly testing people in the streets, roadblocks, mass spraying and fumigation with unknown disinfectants, forcing workers to sleep in factories, even chaining exits to buildings, and locking people inside indefinitely.
So, reflect on the uncertainty and anxiety of the early days of COVID in your country or region. Perhaps you were encouraged to stay home or wear a mask for a period. Some Chinese citizens have been forced under penalty of imprisonment to endure far stricter, draconian measures for over two years. The final thing to understand about China’s Dynamic COVID-zero policy is that it’s a transitional strategy. As harsh as it all is, it’s the second step adopted after containment has been achieved. It makes you wonder if you would even know some of the harsher measures being taken before Dynamic COVID-zero policies take effect.
#2 – Size & Scale
The second thing to understand when news sources seek to amplify the actual situation in the streets is the size and scale of these demonstrations. Tens of millions have been under some kind of lockdown for over two years, so the streets are not as crowded as one might imagine. These protests are relatively small in comparison to the overall population. In Shanghai, an estimated 300 people demonstrated. Shanghai is a city of over 26 million. It’s difficult to know whether these protests will have any lasting impact or result in any change. The Chinese government did ease some restrictions in light of them, but the draconian Zero COVID policies continue. Plants and factories in these key metropolises will run at a diminished capacity or remain closed.
Workers at a factory in Zhengzhou, which makes iPhones, forced their way out in a walkout because they feared being locked inside the plant. We only hear about incidents like these because it’s an iPhone factory, and we are left to wonder where other incidents like these may occur. Plus, Zhengzhou is a city of over 10 million. Our first inclination is to think that a factory with maybe a few hundred workers isn’t symbolic of a more significant social upheaval. Here we have to put this in its proper scale. The Foxconn factory where this occurred has hundreds of thousands of staff across its sprawling industrial facility. It is one of the largest industrial factories in the world. They have dormitories where many of the workers live. It’s enormous but small compared to the overall size of Zhengzhou. Still, you would think such a significant event would spread across China, and people would know about it and maybe react to the news themselves. You would be wrong in thinking that.
#3 – Total Control
China has an iron grip on information. Protests coordinated to date have been communicated through dating apps, social media apps, and some limited messaging services. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Reddit, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitch, LinkedIn, and 100 or more services you may be familiar with are blocked in China. Censors actively suppress not only the news but the means to spread the news as well.
There’s also a COVID App required for movement in some areas. This means that you can’t travel to certain areas which you only find out about from your smartphone. You could, and there are several instances of this, receive an alert that you are immediately required to return or stay home and quarantine yourself. Several people who sought to participate in the bank protests a few months ago suddenly received these alerts when they were en route to the protest location. Strangely, they hadn’t even recently taken a COVID test.
Chinese citizens in these large cities aren’t going to evade one of these orders either. In many major cities, surveillance cameras are equipped with biometric scanners on every corner. Arrests are made, people can disappear forever, and the authoritarian government erases history. People are put in prison simply for criticizing the President or government.
It’s a very, very controlled environment. While some free movement and expression are permitted, for the most part, it is suppressed by any means necessary if it even remotely reflects negatively on the government or president.
#4 – History
You don’t have to look too far back into China’s history to understand the lengths the government will go to maintain control of its people and the narrative. Many in the west will remember the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. You may even recall the iconic “Tank Man” who, with shopping bags in hand, defiantly stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square after the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on protestors. Who was Tank Man? Nobody knows. He was never heard from. Show a picture of the iconic moment to any citizen in China under 30 years of age, and they won’t be able to tell you anything about the moment. Those who do know anything, the older people who lived through it perhaps, would refuse to say anything about it.
While protests are rising and even calling for China’s president Xi Jinping to step down, they are calm compared to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Protests in China, even relatively peaceful and calm ones, are met with a forceful rebuke by the military and the Communist party. Protests today are contained. Already, officials are looking for and arresting known instigators of recent protests. The difference between the events of 1989 and what is happening today is the Chinese government’s ability to leverage technology to identify, control, and prosecute its people. It is genuinely dystopian at this point.
This technological suppression and prosecution enhance a system already in place to control the population. For years, the Chinese government has committed a series of human rights violations and abuses against ethnic and religious minority groups. These camps and “re-education” centers are standard practices. Internment, forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced birth control, forcibly separating children from parents, forced labor, and similar atrocities are commonplace actions of the Chinese government.
So, you would think all of this iron-fisted control, lockdowns, forced testing, mass arrests, random checks on the streets, and so forth would lead to some outraged citizens. Wrong again. According to the Pew Research Institute, Chinese citizen satisfaction with the government has consistently ranged above 85%. In contrast, Americans’ trust in the U.S. government ranged from 37 to 40 percent.
In China, surrendering individual rights for the collective good is considered a citizen’s responsibility. Plus, you don’t know what you don’t know. You might see the grass is greener on the other side of a fence, but you would never see it if the fence was a solid 10-foot wall. It’s doubtful anyone in the next city over has any news or knowledge of what occurred in the Zhengzhou walkout. Other regions in China have no idea there was even an apartment fire in Urumqi.
We shouldn’t solely examine the current protests in China with just western eyes or from a purely western perspective. China is a very different beast.
#5 – The True Results
Sadly, these protests will not likely result in any substantive change for the Chinese people. Time will tell if we are wrong with that assertion, but history supports the position. These protests could easily flare up to something even more substantial, leading to serious regime challenges for the communist government. There is always that possibility, but we don’t think the conditions are ripe for that just yet.
We have to zoom out a bit to see the ramifications of Dynamic COVID-zero policies in China and the ongoing social unrest. The ongoing lockdowns and areas of civil unrest will hurt their economy. The Chinese government has already revised its GDP, exports momentum has faded, and imports reflect sluggish demand. The economy is rebounding slower than it would like, and the unemployment numbers amongst the younger generations are increasing. That would ripen the conditions for civil unrest if not contained.
Economically, China can kick the can down the road when it comes to severe economic collapse. This is a topic we covered on this channel a few months back. So, while these lockdowns in major cities put a severe drag on production, China still accounts for almost a third of everything manufactured worldwide. It’s also finding new markets and new demands in Russia. Xi Jinping and Putin agreed to a “no-limits” partnership the month before Russia invaded Ukraine. For Russia, this agreement is critical. For China, it’s situational.
Russia just recently presented India with a list of more than 500 items it needs to be manufactured and delivered, including parts for cars, pistons, oil pumps, ignition coils, seatbelts, aircraft and train parts, communication systems, fuel systems, fire extinguishing systems, and more. The sanctions are taking a toll on Russia as it expends resources in its invasion of Ukraine. Just as Russia has sought to source manufacturing from India, they have aggressively pursued the same from China.
Russia has partnered with China to prop up the Rouble and circumvent the SWIFT system. Many Russians can now secure Chinese Yuan from their bank instead of Roubles. Total transactions in the yuan-rouble pair on the Moscow Exchange ballooned to an average of almost 9 billion yuan ($1.25 billion) a day last month, exchange data analyzed by Reuters showed. Previously, they rarely exceeded 1 billion yuan in an entire week. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it wasn’t even in the top 15 countries using the Yuan outside China. Now it’s number 4, right behind Hong Kong. This growing China-Russia relationship is stoking the Chinese economy and currency and keeping both countries well above water.
This burgeoning relationship and the total control and suppression of the Chinese people will prevent any meaningful, long-term outcome from the protests. The Dynamic COVID-zero policies probably won’t work in the big scheme of things. At best, it slows the infection rate to allow the healthcare systems not to be overwhelmed and the population to begin to form some natural immunity.
In a country where work camps are not unheard of, these protests of a few hundred people aren’t likely to derail the economy too much. In the big picture, not much will come of them, and they will be collectively forgotten about in the future. Suppose regime change occurs in Russia or international pressure slows or prevents the flow of money and goods to Russia from China. In that case, there’s the possibility things could worsen for the Chinese economy, unemployment rates, and other indicators enough to fuel larger flareups in response to harsh draconian Dynamic COVID-zero policies, but that’s a lot of “ifs.”
The immediate, recognizable impact is the considerable drag on the global economy that lockdowns and protests create. We wouldn’t expect much else to change internally for China. It isn’t likely that these protests will flare up out of control. We would expect the supply chains to become further strained. We would expect the Chinese economy to struggle a bit more, and we would expect the global dependence on almost 30% of the products manufactured in China to be examined. More and more countries will look to source materials and products from other countries or within their own borders.
On our end, we will continue to monitor it. We think some disruptions and strains of the supply chains are inevitable if the protests get worse, but sadly, we don’t see any significant advancement for the Chinese people. Even though the mainstream media will try to hype this up as cataclysmic or another Arab Spring, we don’t see it genuinely rising to that level. Of course, these things are fluid, so we will have to watch it closely, but we will watch it knowing and understanding these five things we have outlined in this blog.
Is what is happening in China a possible regime changer? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.
As always, stay safe out there.