“We don't want a PCR test, we want to live normally”, “Xi Jinping resignation! Communist Party resign! We want more freedom! » These slogans resound for several days in China, during spontaneous demonstrations held both in the capital, Beijing, and in other major cities of the country (Zhengzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, etc.) and even in remote areas (Kashgar, Urumqi, Dali, etc.). ).
The protest movement, which has taken on an unprecedented scale, reflects a generalized fed up of the Chinese population, after nearly three years of confinement and drastic measures very intrusive.
Only three weeks after the closing of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China, which has seen Xi Jinping further strengthen his power over the Party and over China, the regime, which seems (locally) overwhelmed, reacts with a repression which continues to intensify. An unprecedented situation since Tian'anmen in 1989...
In the beginning, the fire of Urumqi
Brandishing a white sheet of paper, tens of thousands of Chinese are asking the central authorities first of all for the relaxation of restrictive measures and then, quickly, for more transparency and democracy.
The starting point of this wave of protest – which comes after years of recurring demands but sparse and diffuse throughout the territory - is a deadly fire which occurred on November 24 in a residential tower in the city of Urumqi (autonomous region of Xinjiang, in the west of the country, where the Uyghurs represent approximately 40% of the population).
The emergency services and intervention services were slow to intervene, especially since the conditions were made very difficult by the application of local containment measures. The city is indeed confined for more than 110 consecutive days. Access to the burning building was obstructed by electric vehicles that were impossible to move due to their immobility for more than a hundred days. In addition to barricades and walled doors… The authorities announced a toll of ten dead ; but according to some testimonies, there would have been several dozen victims.
This drama was quickly relayed on Chinese social networks, in particular WeChat, which works, despite the control sought by the authorities, as a sounding board throughout China (the country has more than a billion Internet users). Quickly, awareness of the circumstances of the tragedy led thousands of people to openly express their rejection of the “zero Covid” policy measures implemented by the authorities.
Young people in the front row
Movements echo with each other, from the large metropolises in the east of the country to the central provinces and as far as the western regions.
The economic and social situation played a key role in triggering this movement. The numbers are not good; they were even censored during the 20ᵉ Congress. The growth is almost sluggish and industrial production is reduced.
Young workers have hardly any job prospects, apart from the civil service which recruits in unprecedented proportions for several decades. Students and recent graduates – who until recently were described as being "the generation that stays in bed", tangling – are investing today in a fundamental movement of demands similar to those of the 1980s, which led to the major protests in Tian'anmen Square and (elsewhere in China) before being crushed in blood by the regime.
They are above all men and women under 35 that we find today in the demonstrations - people who, for years, have struggled to integrate into the labor market and have also suffered, as a result of the "zero Covid" policy, major disruptions in their private life and, more broadly, in terms of sociability and mental balance.
Several dozen Chinese university campuses are at the heart of the movements, from the capital with the prestigious Tsinghua University to Chongqing, Wuhan, Shanghai, or Nanjing.
There is an unprecedented articulation between the digital space of social networks, where young people are particularly present, and the expression of discontent in the physical public space. This convergence between the two spaces constitutes a real challenge for the authorities who had not had, until now, to manage the two in resonance, under the eyes of the Chinese population and the rest of the world. In the first days of the protest, the security system was overwhelmed by mobilizations, especially in large cities. This testifies to the certain inability of the local security services to prevent and control movements.
Many barriers and walls erected by the local authorities in all the confined localities have been destroyed in turn. Barricades are dismantled, walls are crossed. So many visible and highly symbolic signs of the population's rejection of power.
Maintaining the “zero Covid” policy and intensifying repression?
China's security system policing is being "updated". The regime's response, at the central state level, has been the repression and arrest of all those perceived to be (potentially) responsible for the movements. At the same time, the power seeks to increase its degree of control over the Chinese web and the public space.
In the aftermath of peaceful protests on Wulumuqi Street (Urumqi's name in Mandarin) in Shanghai, local authorities ordered the closure of entire sections of the street, as well as the removal of signs indicating its name. Political power regains almost complete control of the public space. One after the other universities are emptied of their students, sent home, officially for the risk of contamination with Covid-19.
Despite the signs of economic weakness and the exasperation/saturation of the population, the regime will continue to lock itself and China into the “zero Covid” policy, also locking itself into a logic headlong rush that increasingly separates China from the rest of the world.
The narrative is also taken over. The regime has ensured the population of new collective vaccination efforts, a way of repositioning the Party as the only legitimate actor in the fight against the Covid.
It is also interesting to note that repression is adapted according to regional and social contexts. In the coming days, the repression will probably be less strong (more on a case-by-case basis) in the eastern regions, urban and industrial, very connected to globalization, than in the central and western regions, more remote spotlight and international attention. The example of Kashgar (Xinjiang), where the repression was particularly severe, attests to this.
While the 20e Congress, in October, had been presented as a triumph, the Chinese power is facing an unprecedented and very anxiety-provoking situation for him. The demands for the resignation of "Xi Jinping and the CCP" express in a new way the people's distrust of a regime in difficulty. Xi Jinping will not be removed from office, nor will he give up. It remains that the period is complicated for him, knowing that he must be invested again in the presidency at the beginning of next spring. The crisis is taking place in a context marked by infighting within the CCP.
The temporality is now that of an increased weakening over time for the Party. Internal and external crises, structural and cyclical difficulties announce a decade of all evils for a regime which could well be at the end of its cycle.
Emmanuel Veron, Teacher-researcher - Naval school, National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (Inalco)
Image credit: Shutterstock/ SibRapid
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