Writer and host: Smitha Nair | Producer: Karnika Kohli| Graphics designer: Rubin D'Souza |

Public anger over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid strategy spilled onto the streets across many cities in China. The demonstrations, witnessed over the weekend, were the most widespread show of dissent and civil disobedience in China in decades. The zero-Covid measures, championed by Xi Jinping, have been in place since the start of the pandemic, what then prompted these protests to break out now? Will these protests dent the authority of the President, who only recently sealed a historic third term in office? put these questions to Manoj Kewalramani, researcher and chair of the Indo-Pacific Studies program at the think tank Takshashila. Kewalramani is also the author of the book Smokeless War: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance. The book documents China’s handling of Covid-19.

Since the publication of your book, which documented, at the time what seemed like a successful execution of Xi Jinping’s counter Covid strategy–bringing the spread of the virus under control, kickstarting the economy, winning the internal, domestic propaganda war–we have seen things go south. Are you surprised by what we are witnessing, the nature and scale of these protests?

I am surprised by the nature and scale of these protests because the Chinese party state has had quite a bit of time to, and quite a bit of capability developed over the years to monitor online discontent and to make sure it does not spill out into the streets. Protests in China are not uncommon in fact they are encouraged against the local governments, encouraged by the central authorities. That’s the way the central leadership keeps local leadership in check. So the challenge to authority has always been local. The fact that these protests, across the length and breadth of the country, had a common language of expression–blank sheets of paper, common slogans, demonstrating with tapes on their mouths– that is a bit surprising.

There is a framework that perhaps helps explain why these leaderless protests catch fire and why they spread. It is what we call radically networked societies. These are societies which come together because of something common that binds them. In this case it is their Chineseness and the frustration with the zero-Covid policy which seems to affect everybody regardless of their ethnicity in China. At the same time there is a common proximate cause- in this case the fire at Urumqi. For hierarchical state structures to respond to that, they tend to be very slow.

Your book documents the work done by the formidable propaganda machinery of the Chinese Communist Party in the early days of the pandemic. Could you talk us through how this machinery was harnessed for internal consumption and how it kept these protests at bay up until now?

The propaganda apparatus was used very effectively through the last three years. At one level there was a deep sense of nationalism; at another level there was this propagation of the idea that China was sacrificing for the greater good of the world, any critical reportage was censored. At one point some 300 journalists were sent out to Hubei to do positive stories.

There was also a lot of disinformation about how this potentially was bio warfare. Then when the pandemic spread worldwide, that narrative was turned on its head to say, look we are so much superior, there are so many deaths in the United States, our superior system puts lives first, whereas the US and the liberal democratic world puts capital first, economy first. That narrative got significant purchase. Particularly as China’s relationship with the US became even more acrimonious.

It clearly seems that narrative has hit somewhat of a wall because people are now tired. When people can see 50,000 fans in Qatar screaming at a world cup match without their masks, there is a certain point where you start to ask, what exactly are we doing? One other reason is that as China was heading into the 20th party congress there was a sense of resignation that ok, we are not going to get any change till that political event is over. In fact leading up to that party congress you saw stricter lockdowns in large parts of the country. The hope was that once that political dust has settled, you will see some degree of change.

Some easing did happen. But for local governments the message that went was quite confusing- at one level you are telling them that you need to make sure people’s lives are not lost, you need to make sure that cases don’t increase, you also need to make sure that lives are easy for people and the don’t feel the pain of what’s happening and you need to make sure the economy is functioning as it should- these are fundamentally contradictory goals for anybody to meet. If I am a local government official, and I see cases go up, I am going to bear the political cost of it, because I have seen over the last three years that counties where cases have gone up people’s political careers have fallen by the wayside. So I am likely to impose harsher restrictions. The political bargain a local official will make is just keep the lockdown going, which further breeds public resentment.

Is the nationalistic narrative not working anymore?

I told you how the narrative of the Chinese response to Covid being superior gained currency. If you were a Chinese citizen in say March 2020, sitting in your home and seeing criticism that China exported the virus, even as you are worried about your own family, it can force you into a corner which echoes the nationalistic line.

Even today despite these protests we should not undermine the sense of nationalism. As some scholars have pointed out, the Chinese youth tend to be liberal nationalists. They do want a certain degree of freedom within that system and are not necessarily appreciative of the clampdowns that take place, and we see that in how they push back against censorship online, creatively. But there is also greater nationalism, where they recognise that China is in a peculiar place where there is pushback from the west, from the US and the party media apparatus has deepened this idea that there is external suppression and containment taking place- which is essentially about denying China it’s rightful place in the world. And that echoes quite strongly with the people. So I wouldn’t dismiss the nationalist strand that exists.

In your opinion, will these protests impact Xi Jinping’s authority in any consequential way?

There has been some speculation that these protests are happening because there is an element of permissiveness from different factions within the party, or different factions at different levels of different (local) governments within the Chinese Communist Party. But my sense is that while Xi Jinping has detractors, the political cost of taking a position against him is too high and therefore you are unlikely to see any significant pushback within the ecosystem of the party today. Five years from now? Perhaps. At present? Highly unlikely.

Xi Jinping has managed to make his authority synonymous with the party’s rule. So challenging him would tantamount to challenging the party’s rule itself and the legitimacy of that. He is not going anywhere.

So, (as said by Mao in another context) these protests are unlikely to be the single spark that starts the prairie fire?

Never say never, but I am skeptical that these protests will bring systemic change.

That would also mean misunderstanding the protests. I think the protests are about a particular policy, yes that policy is associated with Xi Jinping. We also underplay the adaptability of the party. It is resilient, Yet, authoritarian states tend to be as brittle as how strong they are. They can collapse as things change. At present though I don’t think the conditions are there for that.

But again, sustained protests, sustained movement, long term erosion of faith among a generation- all of these things can have a deep impact, if not today, then a few years from now. And we could then be having a conversation saying that it was in 2022 that the decline really started. Immediately I don’t think you will see something significantly change.