Asia

What The Historic Protests Against Xi Jinping Could Mean For China

As Xi Jinping begins his third term, widespread protests and the response to "zero-COVID" could give a look into China's future and Xi's legacy.

What The Historic Protests Against Xi Jinping Could Mean For China
Josh Reynolds / AP
SMS

In November, major cities in China saw widespread protests directly against the ruling party. 

These were triggered in part by a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. The city had been under a strict COVID lockdown since August as part of China's "zero COVID" policy. There was intense online speculation that the strict stay-at-home lockdowns were to blame for the deaths in that deadly fire, though it's not confirmed if the residents were actually locked inside.

Newsy reported on the growing resentment of zero-COVID policies in the spring when Shanghai fell into a months-long lockdown, and scenes emerged online of protests and outcry coming from residents' windows. Months later, many across the country are still in these lockdowns, though some restrictions are lifting. 

Eventually, the November protests were dispersed by authorities, and the government finally conceded to make a number of changes to the policy, like making travel easier and restricting the lockdowns to only "high risk" areas.

But, the damage was done. All eyes fell on Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had yet to face a mass movement of dissent until these widespread protests and the negative response to "zero-COVID" — both of which could be tells of what's to come for the country and for President Xi's legacy.

That's because any sort of open rebellion against the ruling party is highly unusual in China, especially against Xi himself.

"Many of these protests restrain themselves by targeting local officials and trying to express their loyalty to the center, but this time you see slogans chanting like 'Xi Jinping step down,'" said Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

"My hometown is in Shanghai, and a lot of people in Shanghai, they joined this protest and they got arrested," Tong, a university student said. "This is the first time actually I've seen the Chinese people really stand out in public saying, 'We don't like the communist government. We hate Xi Jinping. We don't like these policies.'"

The economic impact of his unwavering "zero-COVID" policies is a particular pain point for the president, whose early legacy was characterized by strong economic growth. Since Xi came to power in 2012, the country's GDP has more than doubled. The GDP had an average increase of almost 7% from 2013 to 2019.

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The president also made alleviating poverty one of his signature campaigns, spending hundreds of billions on aid in supplies and loans. In early 2021, he even declared "complete victory" over eliminating extreme poverty. Some analysts pointed out discrepancies in the figures the party presented, and some questioned whether the numbers were censored online.

But thanks to the zero-COVID policy, China's economy shrunk earlier this year for the first time since 1992. Plus, the government chose not to announce a target GDP growth at all.

This is coinciding with a collapse of the real estate market across China, as major developers were going bankrupt from too much borrowing. House prices are plummeting, many developing projects are abandoned before completion, and global investors are pulling out. Some Chinese officials have tried to cut lending rates and even tried buying homes directly to keep the industry afloat. About 30% of China's GDP is dependent on real estate. For comparison, one estimate puts real estate at only 17% of GDP in the US.

The anger in China over the zero-COVID policy is a big deal. Some have argued it's severely tarnished the legacy of Xi's strong economic growth. This may be ultimately why, for the first time since the pandemic began, he finally rolled back some of his zero-COVID restrictions.

But with the slowing economy and property crisis, Xi is facing an uphill battle going into his third term to project stability and growth for China's future.