Three days before China’s twentieth Communist Party Congress in October, a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit and yellow hard hat unfurled two large banners on a highway overpass in northwest Beijing. “No Covid test, we want to eat. No lockdown, we want freedom. No lies, we want dignity. No Cultural Revolution, we want reform. No supreme leaders, we want votes. Don’t be slaves, be citizens,” one of them proclaimed. “Remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping” read the other, a shocking critique of China’s president and the man behind the country’s draconian “zero-Covid” policy. The protester’s statement was all the more surprising because in China the expression of any type of dissent is enough to land a person behind bars.
Within minutes, police surrounded Peng Lifa and tore down his signs. But Peng’s message was noticed and, in the brief moment before the censors kicked in, photos of the incident flooded China’s internet. Many shared Peng’s frustration with zero Covid, where just a few positive tests have caused entire neighborhoods to be locked down for months, forcing thousands of people—even if they are asymptomatic—to isolate in massive quarantine centers for weeks. Just a few hours later, though, posts of Peng’s action disappeared. China’s algorithms had learned to erase all references to the incident, as if it had never happened.
Peng’s protest was similarly nonexistent for the Party Congress, held October 16 through October 22 in Beijing. Xi had already amended China’s constitution to eliminate the two-term limit for the president four years ago, so it was hardly surprising that the Congress anointed him with a third five-year term. Since Xi failed to signal a potential successor, it appears that he intends to rule for life.
Xi completed his consolidation of power on the Party Congress’s final day, when he revealed the six men (and they are always men) who will serve on the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the body that essentially runs China by directing the course of policy and rendering decisions on major issues. All are Xi loyalists. Not since Mao has a Chinese leader been so thoroughly surrounded by sycophants. And like Mao’s, Xi’s Standing Committee portends a China that may well be forced to follow a single man’s vision, no matter the disasters that could follow. In fact, one of Xi’s selections, Li Qiang, was the Party secretary of Shanghai, responsible for implementing the city’s chaotic and much-criticized zero-Covid lockdown last spring. Zero Covid “puts people and lives above all else,” Xi triumphantly told the Party Congress. His speech was also peppered with calls for greater “security and stability,” code for more societal control, enhanced censorship, and the continued squelching of dissent, all regular features of Xi’s decade-long rule.
By November, the Chinese people had had enough. On November 11, there was a slight easing of China’s draconian Covid restrictions. But as cases inevitably rose, local officials reverted to full lockdowns, in accordance with Xi’s insistence on zero Covid. On November 23, frustration again boiled over at an iPhone factory in the manufacturing city of Zhengzhou. When the promised bonuses meant to appease workers for enduring lockdown-like conditions never materialized, protests broke out. Police, masked and dressed in white hazmat suits, responded with tear gas and batons. Cell phone videos of the violence surfaced on the Chinese internet.
A day later, in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, at least ten people, mostly members of the Uyghur minority, died in an apartment fire. The city had been under a Covid lockdown since August, and it’s likely that the victims were unable to escape due to locked fire exits. Barricaded streets prevented firefighters from getting close enough to quickly extinguish the blaze. The next day, Ürümqi residents took to the streets, a rare moment of defiance in a region where the Chinese government randomly detains Uyghurs in internment camps for months or even years.
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.