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China's Covid Authoritarianism Has Hurt its Autocrats
Xi Jinping's draconian tactics are creating a crisis of legitimacy
Shutterstock. Ron Adar.
On November 24, 2022, a fire broke out in an apartment building in Ürümqi, the capital city of China’s Xinjiang region, and claimed 10 lives, according to local authorities. But speculations quickly emerged among Chinese netizens that the rescue was hindered by COVID lockdowns—which had been in effect in Xinjiang for months—and that the actual death toll was several times larger. There may not be conclusive evidence to corroborate the claims, but that didn’t matter. Enough people across the country found them plausible and infuriating, and that set off a five-day revolt that shook the Chinese Communist Party.
Ignited by the tragedy, protests against the draconian “Zero COVID” policy broke out across China on Nov. 26, from Ürümqi and Wuhan (where the pandemic started) to Beijing and Shanghai (where protesters chanted “Down with Xi Jinping!”). Not only were the demonstrations the largest and most widespread in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, but the protesters’ demands also went beyond COVID policy to directly challenge the CCP—a rare event given the party’s near-airtight social control. All that, moreover, happened only a month since the 20th party congress, where Xi victoriously kicked off his third term as the ruler of China.
Xi apparently got the protestors’ message. On Dec. 1, after just five days of protests, the Chinese government started to show signs of easing COVID restrictions. A few more days later, China’s entire pandemic control regime started to collapse—just as quickly as the protests erupted and fizzled out. Now, many big cities may soon be approaching their first peak of the virus’ spread since the reopening, demonstrating that China’s strategy to deal with the pandemic by relying almost exclusively on draconian restrictions hasn’t worked.
The Chinese people’s revolt during those five days was truly remarkable, even though it didn’t result in a regime change that some were hoping for. But let’s take a step back and unpack what all that means for Xi’s Communist Party and for the Chinese people.
Contrasting Autocratic Tools: Legitimation and Repression
It’s anybody’s guess whether Xi saw the footage of people calling him to step down—it must have been a rough day for his minions deciding whether to show him the Twitter feed—but the political science literature offers a clear gauge of what events like this mean for the future of the Chinese regime.
Broadly speaking, the stability of an authoritarian regime has two central pillars: legitimation and repression. Legitimation refers to an autocrat’s act of justifying their righteousness and entitlement to rule, even though they don’t actually have the legitimacy as elected leaders do in a democracy. But persuasion alone isn’t enough to cut it, so the regime needs to resort to repression, the other pillar, to keep dissent and rivalry at bay. (In addressing totalitarianism, a more extreme variation of authoritarianism, political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously identified those two pillars as ideology and terror.)
There are a variety of ways autocrats establish claims to their righteousness to rule, but the following are most pertinent to China. First, there’s rule by ideology, loosely defined as a political belief system. In the Mao Zedong era, communism, together with a cult of Mao himself, was that ideology. But since market reform started in late 1970s, Chinese leaders have replaced much of that with nationalism—or, in Xi’s words, the “Chinese dream” of rejuvenating from a century of humiliation by foreigners.
Second, the regime’s performance in satisfying people’s needs makes an effective claim to legitimacy. The impressive economic growth China has enjoyed over the last four decades has gone a long way in building up the CCP’s performance. But performance is much more than economic; successes in reducing inequality, protecting the environment, or containing a public health crisis all count.
Third, regardless of whether they have delivered, autocrats can also establish authority by pretending to have the same rules and institutions that well-functioning democracies do, such as elections and rule of law. That’s why the CCP takes purely ceremonial meetings like the party congress with the utmost seriousness.
Legitimation is important for autocrats and, hence, critical for understanding their behavior. When their claims to legitimacy weaken, it opens doors to active opposition or, at the minimum, passive non-cooperation. The regime would need to use repression to make up for the deficit, but that’s not ideal because suppressing dissent is costly. That’s why no authoritarian regime can afford running entirely on fear.
A Moment of Truth for Xi
Using this framework, one can see right away that the CCP’s legitimacy claims were already weakening even without the COVID factor. (I have discussed that in more detail elsewhere.) But the recent wave of COVID protests made a much bigger dent to Xi’s authority—and that too in a matter of days.
On the ideology front, Beijing’s standard narrative whenever protests break out is that they are manipulated by “foreign forces” to destabilize the Chinese society. That myth did quite well among mainland Chinese when it came to Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. But this time around, when some protesters in Beijing were accused of being manipulated by “foreign forces,” the Chinese people not only forcefully rejected the accusation but made fun of it by joking that Marxism and Leninism were the real “foreign forces” that manipulated China.
In terms of performance, the protests showed that, even in the eyes of ordinary Chinese, “Zero COVID” has been a colossal failure. While the government was swift in dismantling the pandemic control apparatus, it hasn’t necessarily stopped the bleeding. Now the country is in a “let it rip” mode, but the population—especially the elderly—was under-vaccinated, and the unprepared health care system is already overwhelmed. It’s possible that the “let it rip” strategy will not result in too many deaths and that the CCP’s performance will not take another big hit. But early signs suggest that such a best-case scenario may be a very long shot because crematoriums were already overrun. The Xi administration’s standing has already taken a hit from the failed lockdown strategy and may yet take another hit due to the disastrous impact on public health from the rapid reopening.
Finally, the poorly managed COVID policy is going to undermine Beijing’s reputation in maintaining rules and institutions for many years to come. The government implemented its “Zero COVID” policy by bending or breaking established rules and norms people had lived by. Neither sealing doors of residences nor locking people inside their vehicles is allowed by any law in China, but the government treating them as perfectly acceptable lockdown tactics. And when the COVID policy needed to be scrapped, the government did so without proper communication with the public, creating new confusion and uncertainties. This kind of damage to public trust will take a long time to repair.
A Downward Spiral Ahead
In the long term, the recent COVID protests are by no means a one-off blow to the CCP regime’s stability. Instead, it may add to a downward spiral that could be very difficult for Xi or his successors to arrest.
Despite the tight social control, protests in China are not rare. In a 2015 analysis, I investigated local protests and the government’s response to them in the pre-Xi era. A spiraling pattern emerged: increasing number of protests, declining economic freedom, and the government’s use of ad hoc rewards to quell its political problems reinforced each other.
As China modernizes, its citizens are demanding more political freedom, and there have been more protests. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, there were two so-called “mass incidents”—that is, protests involving 100 or more people—in 2000, but there were 209 in 2012. The numbers were most likely systematically under-reported, but the increasing trend is unmistakable. (What about protests after 2012, you ask? Well, the think tank had to cease the publication of such “sensitive” material.)
Local authorities’ immediate response to these protests was to use some concessions to make the political problem go away (and then later punish those who took to the streets). For example, China Digital Times, a website that aggregates China news, recorded, by my count, 31 environmental protests from 2005 to 2015. Over 40% of the time, the government responded by arbitrarily canceling a polluting project the residents complained about and pacifying them with compensations.
But in doing so, the Chinese government was bending or breaking existing rules and norms to solve its political problems, including, for example, undermining a company’s economic freedom in deciding where to open a factory. Consequently, as protests broke out more often, China slipped further behind in its economic freedom, as the figure below shows. Moreover, when the government uses piecemeal pacification to stamp out protests, it incentivizes more protests in the future because protestors see that taking to the streets works.
The COVID protests last month appeared to be part of the same spiraling pattern. The biggest problem for Xi now is perhaps the long-term consequence of backing down from public demands. Now that people across the country have seen that chanting “Down with Xi Jinping” can get them what they want, we should expect more disobedience and revolts down the road.
Consequently, we should also expect more oppression by Xi’s administration. Early signs suggest that he’s moving fast on that front. China’s cyber regulator is already working with Chinese tech companies to prevent people from using the Internet to coordinate more protests. But as Xi ratchets up his crackdowns and controls on ordinary Chinese while failing to deliver on the regime’s economic and other promises, he may set the stage for more ugly confrontations that could well weaken his hold on power.