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Nicholas Kristof: banana peels for Xi Jinping | Columnists

 


There’s a Soviet joke that’s been circulating in China for a long time, about a man being arrested for protesting in Moscow’s Red Square holding up a blank sheet of paper.

How can you stop me? the man objects in a version. I said nothing.

Everyone knows, replies the policeman, what you mean say.

This old joke inspired some of the white paper protesters’ sheets displayed in China in recent days. Everyone in the country knew what the protesters were trying to say but were afraid to say.

And when everyone can mentally fill a blank sheet of paper with the frustration and anger that so many ordinary Chinese people feel, it’s a challenge that the de facto emperor, Xi Jinping, cannot suppress as easily as he can arrest individual protesters. Xi has meticulously cultivated a cult of personality around himself as kind Uncle Xi whose slogan might be Make China Great Again, but in major cities it is now apparent that he is seen by many as a stubborn dictator, ruthless and not very effective.

So where will these protests lead?

Despite all the rumors that these protests are an echo of the Tiananmen Movement in 1989, they really aren’t that far off. The 1989 protests spanned more than 300 cities across China, drew more than a million people to central Beijing, blocked entrances to the Zhongnanhai leadership complex and enjoyed a crippling power struggle within the Chinese leadership that delayed the crackdown. By contrast, the Xi regime is already training protesters and searching people on the subway for contraband, such as the Instagram app on their cellphones.

To challenge the national government in China today is to invite imprisonment for a man who was detained in Shanghai for wearing flowers and making veiled comments, so it’s hard to see how open resistance can be sustained. Historically in China, mass protests erupted not when conditions were most intolerable (like the 1959-62 famine) but when people thought they could get away with it, like the 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign. , the April 5, 1976 Incident, the loosening of the Democracy Wall of 1978-79, the student protests of 1986, and Tiananmen in 1989.

Then again, I was the Beijing bureau chief of the New York Times in 1989, and most people thought a big protest that year was impossible until it happened. Human courage is contagious and unpredictable.

So run away from anyone confidently predicting where China is heading. One of the few continuities in China over the past 150 years has been the periodic and unexpected discontinuity.

Yet whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, something important may have changed.

It is so important because it is a decisive breach in the Great Silence, said Xiao Qiang, founder and editor of China Digital Times. It is now common knowledge that the emperor wears no clothes.

Xi could perhaps reimpose the Great Silence, Xiao acknowledged, but, he added, it is still a different China.

That’s partly because while there have been numerous protests across the country, they’ve generally been localized over labor disputes, land grabs or pollution. In contrast, China’s zero COVID policy is synonymous with Xi. He owns it. Chinese people speaking out against COVID lockdowns know they are criticizing Xi.

Xi has painted himself into a corner, and it will be costly for him to relax his hated COVID policy.

This is a problem that Xi created himself. It has refused to import highly effective mRNA vaccines, and China’s efforts to vaccinate the elderly have been anemic. Only 40% of Chinese over 80 have received a booster, so a relaxation of COVID rules could lead to COVID-19 killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Meanwhile, the current zero COVID policy has devastated the economy and upset the people. It seems unsustainable.

People have lost hope, says a Chinese friend who is the child of a leader but now mocks the Communist Party, adding that Beijing feels calm and dead. From business owners to taxi drivers, Chinese citizens grapple with constant COVID testing and lockdowns, then on TV they see throngs of unmasked fans at World Cup matches in Qatar, enjoying ‘a normal life.

The Wednesday death of Jiang Zemin, a former Communist Party leader, complicates the picture. Jiang broadened economic reforms and offered a very limited vision of political reform (for example, he opened access to the Times website in China in 2001; it was blocked in 2012 under a successor). And the deaths of former leaders, including Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, have become a way for Chinese people to protest by nominally engaging in mourning.

A feature of Chinese protest is that when even the mildest criticism is banned, people turn to satire and sarcasm, which amounts to mocking Chinese propaganda.

Gene Sharp, an American academic who literally wrote the manual for overthrowing dictators, used to say that one of the biggest threats to tyrants was humor. Autocrats could survive serious calls for free speech, but they chickened out when they were mocked.

I wonder if this will be the challenge of the robed emperors to come, even if he restores the Great Silence.

Chinese university students sang the national anthem because it includes these words (written before the 1949 communist revolution): Arise, you who refuse to be slaves The Chinese nation faces its greatest danger.

It would be clumsy to arrest young people for singing the national anthem, but like this blank paper, everyone knows what it means. This may be intolerable for Xi.

You gather three or five people and sing the national anthem, and you will be arrested, predicted a veteran Chinese journalist who also covered Tiananmen.

When the police show up, protesters have sometimes taken to chanting satirical slogans in support of the zero COVID policy, like, We want COVID tests!

When protesters in Beijing were criticized for being pawns of foreign forces, one didn’t miss a beat as he worked the crowd. By alien forces, he asked, are you referring to Marx and Engels?

Chinese netizens are discussing banana peels (xiang jiao pi) and shrimp mousse (xia tai) these days. Why? Because the first has the same initials as Xi Jinping. And the shrimp mousse sounds like the Chinese to quit.

A dictator’s dilemma: How do you arrest people for posting about banana peels without adding to the ridicule that undermines your regime?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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