Analysis: Chinese protesters are out in record numbers. What changed?
Public protests against China's strict "zero covid" lockdowns continued over the weekend, prompting headlines about "rare protests." But protests do take place in China - in recent decades, there have been tens of thousands of contentious episodes every year, ranging from labor disputes to farmers' protests, and from campus uprisings to more generalized mobilizations of ethnic minorities in places such as Tibet or Xinjiang.
What's been happening since Saturday is quite different in some important ways. But research on Chinese protests cautions against drawing conclusions about how these protests will play out.
Five types of Chinese protests
Since the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown, there have been five main strands of contention in China: 1) labor protest; 2) rural protest; 3) student protest; 4) urban governance protest; and 5) more systemic political dissent. But each of these repertoires mostly remained disconnected from the others, and its manifestations were mostly locally circumscribed, in a pattern scholars often characterize as "cellular activism."
Millions of workers laid off from state-owned enterprises between the early 1990s and late 2000s took to the streets in cities from Liaoyang to Chongqing. Most of the time, they demanded new job opportunities or severance packages, or payment of wage arrears, pensions or health care. Sometimes they railed against real or perceived wrongdoing on the part of enterprise cadres and managers. But these protests rarely attracted much attention or sympathy. In fact, as my research documents, laid-off workers and rural-urban migrants were often direct competitors in the labor market.
Rural protests have usually centered on illicit taxes or land grabs rather than a failure to pay benefits or provide social protection. These protests also have only occasionally spanned localities, usually remaining focused on local targets. Student protests since 1989 have been infrequent and generally not very significant - and generally focused on campus issues or broad philosophical debates.
Many scholars note the prevalence of protests around urban governance and the provision of basic public goods and services, including neighborhood services and environmental protection. These also have tended to be local and even technocratic in nature.
Generalized political dissent on the streets is very rare. We've seen it from time to time, though it's mostly been quickly repressed and its impact has been largely confined to a small set of cosmopolitan intellectuals.
These zero-COVID protests are different
In recent days, however, protesters have appeared on the streets of multiple cities, with apparent knowledge of what their counterparts are doing in other parts of the country. The government's strict zero-COVID policies are the common complaint - but protesters motivated by at least four different types of grievances have taken to the streets.
Workers in Zhengzhou and elsewhere are engaged in labor protests, for instance. Their complaints use opposition to zero-COVID lockdown measures to give voice to more specific grievances, including nonpayment of promised bonuses and undue restrictions on workers' freedom of movement.
Students across dozens of campuses, similarly, are mounting familiar kinds of protests, also framed around anti-COVID measures. As schools moved classes online and evicted many students from dormitories, some have no place to go, as their hometowns refused to accept arrivals for fear of letting in the virus.
There have even been a few incidents of protest based on more generalized dissent - including a banner on Beijing's Sitong Bridge criticizing Xi Jinping before October's Communist Party Congress. But before this weekend, the various strands of protest remained separate.
Crowds have appeared in Shanghai, Urumqi, Beijing and elsewhere in recent days, calling for the end of lockdowns and, at least once, for Xi Jinping to step down. Protesters also sing China's national anthem and the Internationale, a song symbolic of global socialism, in an apparent gesture of loyalty to the state and party.
Video footage suggests protesters don't appear to be either workers or students, but crowds of mostly middle-class local residents. People seemed to have mobilized first around urban governance issues - particularly in reaction to a tragic fire and failed government response in Urumqi. But by taking up slogans and themes of generalized dissent, as well as signaling solidarity with protesting workers and students, these crowds crossed an important boundary.
What happens now?
Any confluence of protesters under the anti-lockdown umbrella is inherently extremely threatening to the Chinese Communist Party, and to Xi Jinping personally. Whether the apparent unity among the protesters can endure is far from certain, and it will be vital to watch how the government responds.
In general, the local and higher-level government response to contention in China can play out in one of three ways. Officials often choose to bargain with protesters, offering concessions or payments if people go home. That may be unlikely in this case, as meaningful concessions - whether rolling back zero-COVID policies or deeper political opening - are probably a bridge too far. Xi Jinping remains deeply connected with maintaining China's zero-COVID stance, proclaiming that "persistence is victory."
When regimes are less able or willing to bargain, they can signal strength and deter protests with repression. Such repression can be costly - failed repression is probably the greatest trigger of escalation, and any repression brings reputational damage. But repression can restore order and deter further contention. China's leadership could move quickly to shut down protests, or pursue slower-motion and more targeted repression in the weeks ahead, should the protests not dissipate of their own accord.
A more likely scenario, based on past protest activity, is that the current wave will crest and the protests will fade over the coming days or weeks. Protesters may simply become exhausted - or decide that the risks or opportunity costs of protesting outweigh any potential gains. Or their sense of unity under the common anti-lockdown framing could begin to fray. For now, the government's apparent strategy is to wait out the current surge.
William Hurst (@wjhurst) is the Chong Hua professor of Chinese development and deputy director of the Center for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of "Ruling Before the Law: The Politics of Legal Regimes in China and Indonesia" (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and "The Chinese Worker After Socialism" (Cambridge University Press, 2009).