China Covid: Shocking protests are huge challenge for China’s leaders

127794959 tsinhuaprotest
Police officers wearing fluorescent jackets confront protesters next to a vehicle in Shanghai

Acts of dissent are not unusual in China.

Over the years, sudden, local explosions of defiance have been triggered by a range of issues – from toxic pollution to illegal land grabs, or the mistreatment of a community member at the hands of the police.

But this time it’s different.

There is one subject at the forefront of Chinese people’s minds, and many are increasingly fed up with it – prompting widespread pushback against the government’s zero-Covid restrictions.

This has come in the form of residents smashing down barriers designed to enforce social distancing, and now large street protests in cities and university campuses across the country.

In a way, it is hard to explain just how shocking it is to hear a crowd in Shanghai calling for China’s leader Xi Jinping to resign.

It is extremely dangerous here to publicly criticise the Communist Party’s general secretary. You risk being put in prison.

And yet there they were on the Shanghai street (Wulumuqi Lu) which carries the name of the Xinjiang city where a fire had killed 10 residents, and zero-Covid restrictions were blamed for hampering the rescue effort.

One protester calls out: “Xi Jinping!”

And hundreds reply: “Step down!”

Again and again: “Xi Jinping! Step down! Xi Jinping! Step down!”

The chant also went out: “Communist Party! Step down! Communist Party! Step down!”

For a political organisation with no greater priority than remaining in power, this is as big a challenge as they come.

The government appears to have drastically underestimated growing discontent towards the zero-Covid approach – a policy inextricably linked to Mr Xi, who recently pledged there would be no swerving from the policy.

What’s more, there is no easy way out of the corner the Party appears to have painted itself into.

It has had three years to prepare for an eventual reopening, but instead of building more hospital ICU units and emphasising the need for vaccinations, it has poured enormous resources into mass testing, lockdown and isolation facilities designed to win a war against a virus which is never going away.

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