There is pent-up frustration in China. This was expressed this week in a violent confrontation between several hundred workers and the police at the world’s largest iPhone factory.
The Chinese are subject to the most stringent Corona measures in the world. China is now experiencing a new wave of infection. This means more invasive procedures.
On another edge of the big country, in Urumqi in Xinjiang, people are also demonstrating in the streets against the strict Corona measures. They believe the city lockdown caused a delay in rescue work after a fire broke out in an apartment building on Thursday. Ten people died.
In other countries, communities have reopened. We have learned to live with the virus. In China, the virus must be eradicated by all means.
The Chinese did not succeed in this. Never before has China recorded as many new Covid cases as it does now.
Three years ago, people in the metropolis of Wuhan started getting sick from a new and unknown virus. The disease was later called covid-19. During the few winter months, the infection spreads around the world and becomes the most dangerous pandemic since the Spanish flu more than 100 years ago.
When the required and imposed social harmony is disrupted, in this case by a virus, the authorities in China are suddenly agitated. Effective censorship usually fails to prevent expressions of discontent.
Like in Wuhan three years ago. And in Zhengzhou and Urumqi this week.
When the virus broke out in Wuhan, the authorities’ first reaction was to turn a blind eye and punish the whistleblower. It was the worst thing they could do in the face of an unknown and highly contagious virus.
Social media was used to spread information, but also to express rare criticism of the authorities. For a moment, the Communist Party lost control of the situation.
This week, video footage was released on social media showing the dramatic events at Foxconn’s massive factory site in Zhengzhou where 200,000 people live and work, making iPhones for the global market.
Workers tear down barricades and fight with police officers in protective suits. The employees are beaten and arrested. They shout to pay us wages and defend our rights. The reasons for the protests are said to be frustration with the Corona measures, deferred bonuses and poor working conditions.
Protests after the fire in Urumqi also spread on social media.
In Wuhan, the vacation time for critical statements on social media is quickly over. After initially denying there was a problem, the authorities took drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus. Cities were isolated from the outside world. Millions were practically placed under house arrest. In Zhengzhou, authorities responded by locking down the city for at least five days.
For President Xi Jinping, the most important thing of all is that the Communist Party controls the population. Nothing is more terrifying than losing your grip.
Apparently, Zero-Covid has been a successful, albeit very brutal, strategy for a long time. There have been far fewer patients and far fewer deaths in China than in the vast majority of other countries. This fit the regime’s narrative that the Chinese model of governance is superior to the Western model.
But China was not in control three years ago. They don’t have it now either. More than 32,000 new cases of infection have been reported in recent days. This is very small in a population of 1.4 billion. But it is far from the zero-sum vision of the authorities.
Analysts at Capital Economics told Reuters that the next few weeks could be the worst in China since the early weeks of the pandemic, both for the economy and for the healthcare system.
Beijing closes shopping malls and parks. Many cities are implementing partial lockdowns. There is a risk that, for millions of Chinese, this is only the first step toward more blanket lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines.
Just two weeks ago, the authorities announced that they would shorten the quarantine period and reduce infection tracing. But when the infection numbers rise and the “zero-Covid” status is fixed, tougher measures will come. It is becoming increasingly difficult to convince citizens that this is really necessary.
The problem is that the Chinese are particularly vulnerable to a new wave of infections. Older adults have been more or less fully vaccinated. The country’s self-developed vaccine should offer less protection than Western alternatives. Relatively few have been infected so far. In short, the immunity of the population is low.
The strict Corona measures had a heavy economic price. China has not achieved the Communist Party’s target for economic growth this year. This would be the lowest growth in decades.
20 percent of Chinese youth are unemployed. New shutdowns mean production is falling further. The regime is unable to deliver on its promises of continued growth and prosperity if it is to implement the same strict, and now increasingly unpopular, corona measures at the same time.
Demonstrations in major cities such as Guangzhou, Zhengzhou and Urumqi, sporadic protests elsewhere and unusual criticism on social media are all signs that Chinese people are wearing thin on the authorities’ anti-epidemic policies. The question is how long Xi Jinping can continue on his current course, before the protests grow into a danger.
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