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China’s watershed moment

Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File
Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. The recent wave of protests against China’s anti-virus restrictions was a ray of hope for some supporters of Hong Kong’s own pro-democracy movement after local authorities stifled it using a national security law enacted in 2020, but not everyone agrees.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is quashing youth-led, anti-regime protests by swamping protest sites with security forces and systematically hunting down protesters through the tools of digital surveillance, including mobile and social-media data. Yet the protesters have already sent Xi a resounding message — that his increasing authoritarianism will not go unchallenged at the grassroots level.

When he eliminated the last checks and balances and crowned himself China’s new emperor in October by securing a ground-breaking third term and stacking the powerful Politburo Standing Committee with his acolytes, Xi looked unchallengeable. He reigned supreme, without any heir apparent. But thanks to the student-led revolt, Xi’s hubris has met harsh reality just a month later.

China is the world’s most extensive surveillance and police state. So, pro-democracy protests cannot last long.

The 1989 pro-democracy movement was crushed brutally, with some 10,000 people slaughtered, according to British declassified documents. That massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, involving a tank and machine-gun assault on student-led demonstrators, underscored the Chinese Communist Party’s record of exercising brute power against the country’s own citizens.

Now Xi’s regime is methodically stamping out the latest protests as they threaten Communist Party rule. The protests were triggered by the repressive lockdowns, which have become a feature of Xi’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19. But they quickly turned into anti-regime demonstrations.

The protests represent a watershed moment for China at a time when its economic slowdown is deepening and unfavorable views of the country, according to a global survey, are at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.

China is the birthplace of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Xi’s regime refuses to come clean about the COVID-19 virus’s origins. By continuing to cover up the truth about how the virus emerged, Beijing disrespects the memory of the more than 6.6 million people who have died globally due to COVID-19 thus far.

In a striking irony, the virus now has come back to haunt Xi, with China reporting a record surge of new cases and marchers protesting the regime’s pursuit of the world’s most restrictive COVID-19 policies. With the surge underscoring the impracticality of his zero-tolerance approach, Xi has in recent days sought to assuage public anger by signaling an easing of his strict COVID-19 policies.

Communist China is the world longest-surviving autocracy. In 2018, it surpassed the Soviet Union’s 69-year record to become history’s longest-surviving communist state. 

But now the world’s largest, strongest, wealthiest and technologically most advanced autocracy finds itself at a crossroads, especially as its slowing economic growth undermines the Communist Party’s rationale for monopolizing power.

In fact, what is remarkable is that the Communist Party, despite its long record of gory excesses, remains ensconced in power, bending reality to its propaganda and blocking open dissent.

During the rule of its founder, Mao Zedong, tens of millions of Chinese died in state-induced disasters, including the so-called “Great Leap Forward,” “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” and the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” According to international estimates, German dictator Adolf Hitler was responsible for 11 to 12 million deaths and Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin for at least 6 million, but Mao for some 42.5 million, making him the undisputed champion butcher of the 20th century.

Mao’s blood-soaked era influenced his successor, Deng Xiaoping, to order the savage assault on the Tiananmen Square protesters. Deng’s economic reforms unleashed an epochal transformation of his country. But his failure to truly liberalize China has left a troubled legacy for Chinese, as underlined by the latest protests.

How long can the world’s oldest autocracy continue to elude the forces of history? Xi, by dispensing with collective leadership and orderly succession, has already undercut the institutionalism that made post-Mao authoritarianism resilient to the forces of change, which helped unravel the Soviet empire. 

Today, the international factors that aided China’s rise are eroding. Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative, faces increasingly strong headwinds, with the international spotlight on Beijing’s colonial-style lending practices intensifying. China’s creditor imperialism often ensnares borrowing countries in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

There is also a pushback against China’s influence operations in democratic countries, including the Trojan Horse of Confucius Institutes at foreign universities.

The latest protests will deepen the party’s concerns over social unrest and maintenance of order. But the party is no position to fully address the concerns, despite its overriding focus on domestic order, including boosting the budget for internal security to such an extent that it has overtaken China’s official military spending.

Here’s the paradox: China’s export-driven economic growth model means it cannot turn its back on globalization. But the more China globalizes while trying to insulate itself from liberalizing influences, the more vulnerable it becomes to unforeseen political shocks at home.

The latest protests are a reminder that Xi’s own actions threaten to undermine communist rule, including by building a cult of personality around his one-man reign and by inviting an international pushback through his aggressive pursuit of expansionist policies.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.

Tags China China human rights abuses China human rights violations China protests China–United States relations Chinese Communist Party Chinese protests Deng Xiaoping Deng Xiaoping Mao Zedong Xi Jinping Xi Jinping

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