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China: Mass protests begin to force concessions

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The wave of mass protests across the whole of China has finally forced Xi Jinping to begin relaxing the strictest conditions of the Zero Covid policy. That alone is a major step forward against the dictatorial regime of the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, but there are also other, less obvious, gains.

A fire in a tower block in Xinjiang province was the straw that broke the camel's back. In Urumqi, a city of four million people, residents had to watch as the fire engulfed the building, killing ten. Everyone knew that it was Covid lockdown measures that prevented the fire brigade reaching the scene in time.

Video clips of the inferno spread across the country as fast as the fire itself, before censors caught up and deleted them. The damage was already done - hundreds of millions, who have been locked down for weeks or even months at a time, knew perfectly well that the same could happen to them.

The tragic deaths led to the long accumulated anger and despair of the people breaking out. One of the most politically significant was in Shanghai, China's commercial capital, where protesters gathered on a street named after Urumqi. In effect, this was a practical demonstration of solidarity with the Uighur people of Xinjiang, so often portrayed as terrorists and foreign agents.

Since 27 November, there have been protests across the country. There have even been calls for Xi's resignation. Demands have rarely gone this far in recent decades. The state initially reacted with an increased police presence and repression but also with the opaque statement "we are adjusting the strategy". What that might mean was left unclear, but its effect was to encourage the protesters. As well as Urumqi, major protests were reported from Changsha, Chengdu, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing.

Arrests have continued across the country. This does not only affect the "usual suspects" of activists or people staying in big cities without a valid residence status (hukou). Even Western journalists are affected, as shown in a video of a BBC reporter being arrested. The only thing he could shout to bystanders was "inform the consulate" - a defence strategy that the Chinese do not have. No wonder, then, that at this time more and more are yearning for a political turnaround.

It is no coincidence that the call for democracy and human rights is becoming a recurring demand of the protest movement in China. Unlike issues such as factory closures or non-payment of wages, which can be dealt with at a local level, covid restrictions are identified with Xi Jinping and his regime. Protests, therefore, have enormous explosive power. The prospects for Chinese citizens and especially of national and ethnic minorities, but also of the working class outside the big cities, are so limited that a volcano is bubbling under the surface.

The Chinese version of the lockdown is far harsher than in most other countries. The streets are controlled by police and military. Quarantine can mean being locked in one's home and always means being confined to your compound or district. That is in addition to the permanent lack of freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, let alone elections where it is not only clear that nothing will change, but also which men will always hold power in their hands.

This all-embracing denial of rights has led to another significant development: blank sheets of paper! The waving of blank paper has been taken over from the Hong Kong democracy movement where it served to emphasise lack of free speech - a silent, but eloquent, demand for democratic rights that draws attention to all the things that cannot be said. Not that the demonstrations themselves remain silent; the Beijing "Bridge Man" slogan, "We don't want PCR tests, we want food!" has progressed into chants of, "We don't want a dictatorship, we want elections".

The rapid spread of the white paper tactic reveals the ability of the activists to learn from one another. Against a background of official denunciation of the Hong Kong demonstrations, this reveals a rejection of the party's propaganda. In response, some brave activists in Hong Kong have staged solidarity meetings, itself a positive rejection of the all too frequent anti-mainlander sentiment in the ex-colony.

The police react with violence and arrests. Overall, there has been an increase in violence, including for non-compliance with Corona measures. In Hong Kong, for example, there were attacks by the police on people who refused to wear masks. However, out of Western arrogance, we should not conflate the Chinese protests against quarantine measures with the reactionary "anti-vax" protests in Germany or Austria. Wherever you are, not wearing a mask during a pandemic does not make you a hero.

Moreover, the impact of covid restrictions in countries like Germany and Austria cannot be equated with those in China. In China, there is no "welfare state", no state benefits. Because of the scale and unpredictability of lockdowns, even where local authorities try to provide food, this is often inadequate and chaotic. For migrant workers with no residence permit, working in the "shadow" economy in big cities, this can be especially hard. No work, because of lockdown, means no pay, no food, no heating, as winter approaches.

China benefited from the pandemic at first. The zero-covid policy showed itself to be superior to the initial "herd immunity" policy of many "western" countries. Now, however, the development of effective vaccines and vaccination programmes in those countries has allowed them to relax restrictions. China, on the other hand, has relied far more heavily on lockdowns, to try to eradicate the virus. Locally produced vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, reportedly only give 50 % protection from illness. Only 69 % of the elderly population have received a full vaccination so far. Case numbers are rising nevertheless, or perhaps as a result, and the government is trying to get a grip on them. In vain. A large-scale vaccination campaign or the licensing of the MRNA vaccines are not in sight.

Meanwhile, the constant lockdowns are having an impact on the economy. Productivity is falling, as is the annual growth rate, which will only be about 3.9% in 2022. It is already apparent that the lockdowns are standing in the way of China's recovery and thus its competitiveness against imperialist rivals. So far, the negative effects are most noticeable only on the stock exchanges but, in time, the impacts on the domestic economy will take their toll. This will not only feed into the existing protest movement but also exacerbate the tensions between Chinese capital and the party's dictatorial regime.

The looming problem for Xi is that sooner or later, the leadership will have to move away from "Zero-Covid in One Country". When it does, there is likely to be an "exit wave" of infections as the virus, and any new variants, sweeps across the under-vaccinated population. This, too, will damage the supposedly infallible image of the CCP, and its leader-for-life.

Workers in revolt
Of particular, longer-term significance is the role of workers in the current wave of protests. Foremost have been the Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou who, when ordered to remain on site 24/7, retaliated by breaking down the compound fences to escape. Replacement workers, organised by local government and promised extra bonuses, then led protests when those bonuses were not paid.

Such protests are mushrooming rather than being coordinated. They include young people, workers, but also the so-called "middle class", which exists mainly in the big cities. Students often play a central role. This suggests that, despite the strong surveillance of social media, not everything can be contained. Impressive as this is, it does carry dangers that can be exploited by the state and the Party. A movement that emerges dynamically and "spontaneously", needs to develop organisational coherence and a leadership with a strategy and a programme to give it direction.

If the protests continue as they are, it is likely that they will be suppressed by a centralised state apparatus, despite their elan and heroism. But the very fact that the government is having to make concessions makes it clear that it cannot simply eliminate this movement any more than it could the virus. The thousands of demonstrators are only the tip of a much larger iceberg of opposition to the ruling regime. Above all, concessions by the government show that even in China resistance is not futile.

However the movement continues, it will already have had a formative influence on many activists because it raises fundamental questions of strategy and tactics, of programme and organisation under the conditions of Chinese capitalism. For the most advanced activist layers it will make clear the necessity to link the struggle for democratic rights with the struggle of the workers, to link the question of freedom of expression and organisation with the question of which class holds the key to China's future.

The integration of the progressive currents among the students with the working class will be crucial, because in the end it is the only social agent that can force and implement the necessary changes. This requires coordinated actions, strike committees in workplaces and neighbourhoods, nationwide networking. The current protests show that democratic demands will be the starting point for the next wave of actions and that larger political movements quickly pose the question of the regime.

In addition to the courageous demonstrators in the east of the country who appear more in the media coverage, the minorities in the west as well as the agricultural workers must not be forgotten. The deliberate politics of division of recent years must be overcome. As well as the abolition of the camps for whole sections of populations, like the Uighurs of Xinjiang, there must be an end to the hukou system which perpetuates class membership by birth and divides workers geographically.

What is needed is a targeted development and networking of the structures of struggle beyond the big cities into the countryside. Since such work cannot be carried out openly in China, the building of such structures, but above all of a revolutionary party, will inevitably have to be linked to underground activity.