No Exit From Zero COVID for Xi Jinping

The death of a former leader, Jiang Zemin, is inconvenient for the Chinese Communist regime but unlikely to deter its crackdown on dissent.

An image of Jiang Zemin and a silhouette of a PLA soldier
Jason Lee / Reuters / Redux

The death of China’s former leader Jiang Zemin after a week of countrywide demonstrations of popular discontent with Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy, adds one more potentially potent factor to a volatile political situation. Xi has built a cult of personality around himself that resembles that of Mao Zedong. Jiang, who ruled as the party’s general secretary from 1989 to 2002, may not have had that stature, but his tenure casts an unflattering light on today’s flagging economy and harsh social controls.

Jiang died at a moment when the politics that he represented are out of favor with the party leadership. He may not have been a great reformer, but he fostered China’s emerging business class and allowed Chinese civil society to flourish—censorship of ideas in his time was relatively mild. Jiang is remembered for supporting market reforms, and for opening China to the rest of the world, laying the foundations for the nation’s decades of rising prosperity.

Chinese leaders frequently invoke history as a source of legitimacy—one reason, perhaps, why they equally frequently rewrite it—and they are keenly aware of the resonance of past events. They will remember that the deaths of previous leaders have acted as a catalyst for unanticipated events. When Premier Zhou Enlai died in 1976, for instance, protests broke out in Tiananmen Square against Mao and the Gang of Four that would rule after him. Demonstrators demanded that the then-disgraced leader Deng Xiaoping return. Within a year, Deng was back in charge, Mao was dead, and the Gang of Four were under arrest.

Deng was still in charge when the next prominent death set off a series of events that resonate to this day. Hu Yaobang had held the party’s general secretaryship but, like Deng, had been persecuted by Mao and, again like Deng, returned late in his career to the center of Chinese politics. Hu advocated both economic and political reform, but when student demonstrations broke out in 1987, his conservative opponents in the party blamed him for the trouble and he was dismissed once more. Less than a week after his death, however, in April 1989, 100,000 students marched to Tiananmen Square calling for his rehabilitation and the enactment of the reforms he had championed.

That march was the beginning of an occupation of the square that lasted until its brutal suppression on June 4. Jiang was the beneficiary of that crackdown, brought in to replace the liberal general secretary of the party, Zhao Ziyang, who was dismissed over his reluctance to use violence. Jiang’s reputation remained relatively untainted by the massacre—unlike that of then-Premier Li Peng, who had declared martial law and supported the military onslaught against the students.

Crucial, also, to Jiang’s positive legacy was that he stepped down at the end of his two presidential terms. This was the arrangement instituted by Deng to avoid a return to the strongman politics of the Mao era—and it is the precedent Xi broke when he took up a third term at the Communist Party’s 20th Congress in October.

For now, Xi seems set on this course of consolidating his personal rule, even in the face of these protests. The Chinese party-state is unrolling its well-tested methods of suppressing dissent: triage, obstruction, censorship, and selective prosecution.

The censorship is evident in the parallel realities reflected in Chinese state media. A glance on Tuesday at China’s biggest newspaper, the People’s Daily, would inform the reader that the nation’s most important news that day was Xi Jinping’s readiness to strengthen China-Russia energy cooperation. This story, which led the front page, did not mention that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have a bearing on Xi’s decision.

The coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s approach to it—with a story headlined “China Strives to Ensure Livelihoods While Fighting COVID-19 Resurgences”—gave no hint of official recognition of popular frustration manifest in the countrywide protests: the civil disobedience, the forcible dismantling of barricades erected to keep citizens confined in their homes and compounds, and the chants from the crowds demanding the end of the party’s and Xi’s dictatorship. To hear the calls for freedom of speech and political agency, to see the images of young people holding blank sheets of paper in protest against censorship, to see the sudden violent arrests of individual protesters and the mass deployment of police on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing, you have to turn to social media.

In a multilayered game of cat and mouse, Chinese netizens battle internet censors, posting short videos and photographs captured on millions of cellphones and immediately shared on Chinese social media. The images are swiftly deleted by the censors, but not before many escape into international social media and then cross back again through the Great Firewall. These fragments are like fleeting reflections in a broken mirror, briefly revealing vivid moments and strong emotions but resisting any assembly into a comprehensive picture.

Last week’s protests erupted in three different locales, and as the state’s machinery moves to contain and repress the movement, it is adapting its approach to each context. The first and most dramatic venue for dissent has been the public street: Shanghai’s Urumqi Road (named for the capital of Xinjiang, where the fatal apartment-building fire that triggered national rage occurred) and downtown Beijing along the Liangma River, which became a regular gathering place during the pandemic.

The second important site is the university: According to one estimate, more than 100 campuses—including Tsinghua, one of China’s top two universities—have seen demonstrations. The third category is the residential compound, or housing project, where neighbors in cities have banded together to confront the local officials responsible for their forced confinement. In some cases, residents tore down barriers; in others, they argued that the actions of officials were illegal and demanded that restrictions be lifted. In several reported instances, they succeeded: Rather than risk an escalating confrontation with China’s middle-class homeowners, some local officials quietly dismantled barriers and allowed people to resume their daily lives.

So far, the government’s approach to the student demonstrators also seems relatively light-touch. Students at Tsinghua and other campuses have been offered free or cheap tickets home and encouraged to take an early winter break. Dispersing the crowd may tamp down any incipient movement.

Finally, the authorities are working to disrupt the public theater of street protest. Barriers have been erected in Shanghai’s streets, which are also flooded with police. Images of phalanxes of security forces dressed in white hazmat suits and carrying riot shields and clubs have circulated on social media. Anyone who tries to join a public protest now risks a speedy arrest.

Above all, the suppression of the protests depends on the tools of China’s digital surveillance state. These were initially deployed in Xinjiang to track and control the Muslim Uyghur population. There, compulsory apps have been tracking citizens’ movements and alerting the police when a user strays outside a permitted area. If a Uyghur person even tries to buy more gas than usual, the authorities are alerted; the purchase of a knife is recorded, and the identity of the owner is engraved on the blade; the presence on a person’s smartphone of a VPN app can be grounds for detention.

The pandemic has enabled the state to extend its system of surveillance to the entire nation. Ubiquitous cameras capture images of hundreds of millions of individuals 24 hours a day—images that can be processed with facial- or gait-recognition software and linked to identity cards. Mobile phones carry an obligatory QR code to monitor the user’s health status: To maintain the “green” health status necessary for any social interaction, including travel or entry to a public venue, the user must report regular test results. The government app tracks the user’s location to identify and report any close contact with an infected person.

The same technology can be used for any purpose the authorities choose. One recent example of the system’s abuse came to light when angry customers of a failing bank tried to travel to Henan province to demand a return of their money. As they crossed the provincial boundary, their health QR codes turned red. Since the protests, police have been calling cellphone users whose devices have been digitally located at demonstration sites to demand that they explain their presence there. For any recipient of such a call who returns to a protest after a warning, the consequences are likely to be severe.

As in Xinjiang, the police have begun to scrutinize people’s phones nationwide for suspicious apps such as Signal and Telegram, which can be used to share information about protests, and VPNs, which are essential to reach beyond the firewall to post videos on Twitter and Facebook, both banned in China. The presence of any of these on a phone can be used as evidence of subversive activity.

The outlines of the government strategy are emerging: control the public sphere with overwhelming force; disrupt the other protest sites; distinguish where possible between ordinary citizens frustrated with the restrictions and those who have taken the further step of blaming the government; deflect the blame onto local officials and make an example of a few, if necessary; accuse anyone who criticizes the government of being in the pay of foreign interests; finally, make some gesture toward public sentiment, acknowledging “mistakes” and promising some remedy, without admitting that the policy itself is flawed.

Hence the People’s Daily declaration that “China has once again demonstrated its staunch resolution to protect people’s health to the utmost, while minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on economic and social development by fine-tuning its epidemic response.” This approach could cover a relaxation of the more brutal aspects of the zero-COVID policy without the need for a public U-turn. Local authorities are being ordered to curb school closures, factory shutdowns, and travel bans, the newspaper reported, to check excessive zeal and abuses on the part of officials. Such concessions signal no reversal of a policy that, the government insists, has kept rates of death and serious cases low in the country.

In fact, the government has failed to use the time that the lockdowns bought to implement a comprehensive and effective vaccine program. Even if that were to begin now, it would take time—and China’s people have clearly indicated that they are out of patience. But Beijing has to live with another anxiety: The lesson from other countries is that mRNA vaccines work best in a population that has acquired a measure of natural immunity—but nearly three years of the zero-COVID policy mean that China has little of that. A relaxation of controls could therefore result in a spike of infections and deaths similar to that experienced by Hong Kong in early 2022. The Omicron surge there peaked in March with a daily mortality rate of 37.7 per million, one of the highest in the world. If China were to suffer the same effect, millions would die.

So the government’s dilemma remains as stark as ever: It has no easy exit from a policy that it has claimed as not only a success but a manifestation of the superiority of the Chinese political system. As the party leadership prepares for Jiang Zemin’s funeral, it will be well aware that its troubles are far from over.