As he marched to speak to the Chinese nation just under six weeks ago, Xi Jinping exuded royal dominance. He had just won what was likely to be another decade in power. His new team of subordinates stood out as unyielding loyalists. A Communist Party congress had cemented its authoritarian agenda and promised a new era in which 1.4 billion Chinese would remain loyal to it and the party.
But a wave of nationwide protests has sent a startling sign that even after a decade of Mr. Xi’s rule, a small, mostly young segment of the population dares to imagine, even demand, another China: more liberal, less controlling, politically freer. A whisper of dissent that has survived censorship, detentions and official damnation under Mr. Xi has suddenly turned into a collective roar.
I can find my faith in society and in a generation of young people, Chen Min, an outspoken Chinese journalist and writer who goes by the pen name Xiao Shu, wrote in an essay this week. Now I have found reasons for my faith: brainwashing can succeed, but ultimately its success has its limits.
Since the weekend, the police have galvanized themselves to eradicate new demonstrations. Authorities searched people’s phones, warned potential protesters, questioned detained participants and staged raucous shows of force at potential protest sites. Vigilance will only grow after the death on Wednesday of Jiang Zemin, a former Chinese president who, more retired than in office, has acquired a political patina as a relatively soft leader. His memorial service will take place on Tuesday.
Even so, the flash flood of defiance suggests Mr. Xi’s next few years in power could be more contested and turbulent than seemed plausible even a month ago. His hold on the party elite seems unassailable; its hold on sections of society, especially young people, seems less assured.
Members of a previously overwhelmed minority opposed to Mr. Xi’s hardline policies now know they have allies, which could make renewed opposition on other issues more likely. The government tried to quell the current discontent by signaling on Thursday that the harshest and most arbitrary Covid prevention measures will be curbed. But supporters of the nascent protest movement have shown they want to curb the authoritarian reach of the parties much more.
That outrage didn’t come from one policy alone, but perhaps from pent-up outrage for three or four years, said Edward Luo, a 23-year-old who said he witnessed the protests in Shanghai. There was no expression channel.
Protests by hundreds or thousands over the weekend against Mr. Xi’s strict zero Covid policies have at times turned into bold demands for democratic goals that Mr. Xi went to war against soon after entering. in office in 2012.
On some college campuses, students chanted for an end to censorship. When a man at a rally in Beijing warned he had been infiltrated by anti-China forces, a trope in the party’s talks of pro-democracy demands, others shouted in outrage.
Understanding the protests in China
We citizens all have fundamental rights, we have the right to demonstrate and express ourselves, but do we really have them? a young woman with a raw voice said to a crowd of hundreds in Chengdu, a city in southwest China.
Mr. Xi has turned China’s security apparatus into a formidable machine for stifling defiance, making a repeat of the 1989 pro-democracy protest movement much less likely. But in the longer term, the protests could produce a powerful afterglow and , for Mr. Xi and the party, potentially embarrassing.
Crowds demanding political change marked the resurgence of a buried flood of dissenting ideas that seemed exhausted after 10 years of Mr. Xi. This ascent survived in line crevasses; in small private bookstores; and in informal social circles that bring together like-minded people from different generations.
It’s like a national subconscious resurfacing, says Geremia R. Barm, a New Zealand scholar who studies dissent in China. Now it resurfaces, this projection of self, rights and ideas.
The demonstrators are a small minority of the population, and those who have expressed the boldest political demands are an even smaller fringe. A number of them may come to regret their outspokenness, under official pressure, or because of career concerns in a society where the party controls opportunities, or simply because they have changed their minds. . But, for some demonstrators, the experiences and the bonds forged can last.
This generation of university students will almost certainly be more restless than the last cohorts who have been through it since 1989, said Mary Gallagher, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies authoritarian politics in China. And they have more reason to be: economically, the future looks bleak.
For much of the past three years, China’s war to keep Covid cases near zero has embodied a bargain Mr. Xi has presented to the public: accept his tough policies and enjoy a degree of comfort in return. security and stability out of reach in the United States. and other countries experiencing massive waves of infection. And, for most of that time, it was a deal that many Chinese accepted, even enthusiastically endorsed.
But public support has eroded markedly this year. The relentless march of Omicron variants has made city blockades more frequent and grueling. Some Chinese have watched with envy as other countries return to something like normal. And zero-Covid policies were exacerbating a painful economic downturn.
In turn, some critics of Mr. Xi’s pandemic policies have come to see them as embodying wider dangers in his sweeping and authoritarian ways.
Middle-class Chinese who previously could live relatively unaware of party political demands, have become frustrated with intrusions by Covid officials and rules restricting travel and locking residents in mass quarantine sites. That became even more true after the October congress, when Mr. Xi won a third five-year term and unveiled his own leadership composition, leaving less room to blame other officials for their mistakes. The lack of a plausible successor in the new line-up means that Mr Xi could stay in power for at least another 10 years.
During the congress, a lone man protested on the Sitong Bridge northwest of Beijing, unfurling a banner denouncing Mr. Xi as a despotic traitor. Despite censorship, news of this bold act spread across China, especially among students and professionals with some access to news from abroad.
Before the Sitong Bridge, I never wanted to say too much about politics, said a 21-year-old student in Beijing who said police officers prevented her from joining a proposed protest rally on Monday. She asked to be identified only by her last name, Wang, fearing further trouble from the police.
The buildup of dissatisfaction among some groups in China also appears to reflect ideas, information and images coming from the rest of the world, including through overseas Chinese students and professionals, said Jeffrey Wasserstromprofessor of Chinese history at the University of Irvine.
For the Chinese, traveling within the country and beyond remains difficult and expensive, but they have seen their leader, Mr. Xi, attend summits abroad without masks.
While Chinese citizens remained under strict testing rules and wear masks in most public places, many also watched maskless crowds at the World Cup. After Chinese broadcasts began to reduce the images, a group emerged on Weibo, China’s popular social media service, discuss the shocking difference.
There is a porosity in efforts to have even the most totalitarian control over the flow of information, Professor Wasserstrom said. There are still people who cross borders and communicate.
After so many years without large-scale urban protests in China and then the isolation of the Covid years, experiencing or even watching it online from a distance was almost out of this world for some. Now this experience can encourage them to rebel again.
It was the first time we had heard such intense and outspoken resistance in our own native language, and it was very special, said May Hu, who said she watched a live stream of the Shanghai protests on Instagram from her home in Hunan Province, southern China. She preferred to use her personal English name to try to avoid official reprisals. I think it left a lot of people feeling there was hope.
But while an alternative China, inspired by ideas of dissent and democracy, has partly found its voice, Mr. Xi is sure to reaffirm his idea of China, one of firm order and visceral distrust. against liberal ideas.
Mr. Xi’s advisers are probably figuring out how to do more censorship and ideological indoctrination in universities. In April 2013months after coming to power, Mr. Xi approved an executive order calling for an assault on electoral democracy, freedom of the press and constitutional limits on state power, precisely the ideas that student groups and residents have claimed in recent days.
Now, Mr. Xi’s second decade at the top can begin with another ideological offensive to reassert the party’s grip on minds, especially among students and young workers.
It will be a constant, planned and constant response, said Mr Barm, the New Zealand academic. It is a system with nearly 100 million party members extending into all aspects of society.
Additional reports by Viviane Wang, Joy Dong, Olivia Wang and Amy Chang Chien
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