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Will Xi Jinping listen to the people?

AP Photo/Andy Wong
Protesters clash with police during a protest in Beijing on Nov. 27, 2022. Protesters angered by strict anti-virus measures called for China’s powerful leader to resign, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to suppress demonstrations against the Communist Party.

When Deng Xiaoping took over in December 1978, at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Chinese Communist Party Congress, he inherited a poor and ravaged China and implemented an ambitious political reform and economic opening program that called for collective leadership and term limits, with a strong Communist Party in the lead.

At the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, Xi Jinping did away with term limits and was elected to a third term as the Party’s General Secretary; he discarded collective leadership and appointed loyalists to the ruling seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and the 24-member Politburo and the 380-member Central Committee. Xi did, however, embrace Deng’s emphasis on Party leadership, ensuring that he, as Secretary General and like Mao Zedong, would continue to make all major decisions.

One decision that Xi made is his “zero COVID” strategy, with draconian, recurrent lockdowns of cities throughout China, with COVID tests, quarantines and the ubiquitous state surveillance and censorship of China’s 1.4 billion people.

This came to a head on Nov. 24, with the reported death of 10 people in a fire in a high-rise apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Allegedly, the building was sealed off due to lockdown measures that prevented the residents from escaping the fire and fire engines were delayed because of pandemic-related barricades in nearby streets.

This incident and Beijing’s apparent inability to manage the three-year-long COVID-19 pandemic has incited student protests on campuses throughout China, and reported civilian demonstrations in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, and Urumqi. Not since the June 6, 1989, Tiananmen Square protests has China witnessed anything like these spontaneous demonstrations at which people are demanding an end to Xi’s “zero COVID” strategy. Some of the protesters are calling out for greater personal liberty, freedom of expression and the rule of law. China did loosen some restrictions this week, but has not lifted the “zero Covid” strategy.

After the death of Mao in 1976 and the end to his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution campaigns that killed millions of Chinese and impoverished the country, Deng was determined to modernize China quickly and looked to the United States for technology, investment and trade, while sending thousands of Chinese students to U.S. colleges and universities. This strategy, despite considerable opposition from many Communist Party conservatives, proved successful and China is now the second largest economy, behind the United States but likely to overtake the U.S. in the next decade.

Many of Deng’s protégés aspired to the democratization of China, although Deng, despite his great successes with economic reform and opening, did not advocate for such. Deng appointed Hu Yaobang as the Party’s General Secretary from 1982-1987 and then removed him, accusing Hu of indulging in bourgeois liberalization and advocating democracy. Deng then appointed another protégé, Zhao Ziyang, as Secretary General of the Party in 1987, only to remove him in June 1989, accusing Zhao of supporting the student demonstrators at Tiananmen and splitting the party. The “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang” states that Zhao was an advocate for a parliamentary democracy, with the rule of law, not the rule by men.

Premiers Wen Jiabao and Zhu Rongji, like Hu and Zhao before them, reportedly were advocates for democratization, with free and fair elections, which China initially pursued with village elections.

It would be fair to assume that Xi, with the appointment of loyalists to the Politburo and its Standing Committee, and with the removal of contrarians such as Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, is not interested in the views of others and is determined to make all major decisions.

But as we have seen since 1978, there were senior Chinese leaders — Hu, Zhao, Wen and Zhu — who had different views, especially on democratization and the rule of law, and some current Party leaders probably also have strong views on these and other major issues, some that deal with the economy, to include a COVID strategy that may differ from Xi’s. 

We can only hope that Xi ultimately will be receptive to the views of others in the Party, and especially to the views of the people when they cry out for universal values like freedom of speech and assembly and the rule of law.

Joseph R. DeTrani is the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea and the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views are the author’s and not necessarily those of any government department or agency.

Tags China protests Chinese Communist Party Deng Xiaoping Xi Jinping Xi Jinping zero covid policy
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