China's Xi has few good options as mass protests against 'zero COVID' policy erupt

Weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping cemented his status as the country's most dominant leader since Mao Zedong, a series of large protests against his signature "zero COVID" coronavirus-containment policy is challenging his grip on power. Significant protests broke out in at least 10 cities over the weekend, sparked by a deadly apartment fire in the locked-down western city of Urumqi. Some of the protesters are openly calling on Xi to step down, risking jail.

The protests are broad — young, old, university students, factory workers, the middle class, elites, from all parts of China —and Xi has few good options to defuse the widely-shared anger, analysts say.

A "crackdown is predictable," like Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Hong Kong in 2019, Perry Link, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, tells Bloomberg. Xi will "sacrifice all kinds of things in order to stay in control."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"You'd expect them to have a heavy-handed repressive approach, but that risks creating martyrs, fueling another wave and giving a rallying cry to the protesters that have already come out," John Delury, a China expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, tells the Financial Times. "They are smart enough to be aware of the dangers, but they can't just let it happen either."

Easing the strict COVID lockdowns, as the protesters want, would also likely cause a spike in illness and death, especially since a large share of elderly Chinese are unvaccinated or not boosted, and those who are received China's less-effective vaccine. Xi could end China's ban on importing foreign mRNA vaccines and focus on inoculating citizens, but "acknowledging such mistakes would undermine the argument for placing so much authority in the hands of one man," Bloomberg notes.

Yasheng Huang at MIT suggested that "a combination of easing the zero COVID measures while going hard after a few protesters they consider as leaders" would "buy them some time" while not conceptually disavowing the "zero COVID" concept Xi has held up as superior to the West's more laissez faire approach. Xi has really "backed himself into a corner by owning the zero COVID policy," Ho-fung Hung at Johns Hopkins University tells BBC News. "The most rational way for him to handle the situation if protests continue to grow is to pressure local authorities to crack down hard while distancing himself."

"Whatever happens, it is going to take the shine off the start of Xi's third term," Charles Parton, a former British diplomat based in China, tells Bloomberg.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.