Protests show maintaining stable US-China ties isn’t easy

December 06, 2022 10:08
Illustration: Reuters

China, through brute force, high-tech surveillance and a rare willingness to temper its harsh zero Covid policy, has successfully snuffed out its worst protests since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 as the United States watched from the sidelines. The situation remains volatile.

Nationwide protests began with a fire in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, on Nov. 24 that killed 10 people and injured nine. The city had been under lockdown for more than three months and many felt that locked doors and other anti-Covid measures had hobbled firefighters. The New York Times cited one estimate that roughly 40% of the country’s people were under lockdown at the time.

Frustration had been building up over seemingly endless Covid tests and lockdowns. The World Cup showed Chinese audiences outside China were enjoying a maskless life.

Protesters across the country focused on one issue: Xi Jinping’s brainchild, zero Covid. Quickly, the protests became political, with protesters chanting that China’s leader and the Communist party should step down.

It is almost unheard of for protestors to target the country’s leader. Such actions carry a high level of personal risk and virtually no chance of success.

They are also deeply humiliating to the leadership, especially to Xi. They show that the nation is far from united behind the party, despite its claims. Only last month, when President Joe Biden met face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart, Xi had asserted that the party was supported “by 1.4 billion people” and that the two countries should not try to “change or even subvert the other party’s system.”

Both sides agreed to maintain stable relations. But as the protests show, politicians can’t always predict or control events. Thus, if Kevin McCarthy, becomes U.S. Speaker of the House and carries out his pledge to visit Taiwan, it may lead to a new Taiwan crisis.

The quest for stable U.S.-China relations no doubt accounted for Biden’s silence when protests erupted in China the week after the summit.

On Nov. 28, at a White House press briefing, a reporter asked, “What is the White House’s message, the President’s message to people in China who are peaceably protesting Covid lockdowns there?”

John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator at the White House, responded: “Our message to peaceful protesters around the world is the same and consistent: People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with.”

The reporter then asked: “Does the White House support their efforts to sort of regain personal freedoms in light of these lockdowns?”

“The White House supports the right of peaceful protest,” Kirby responded.

Despite American restraint, China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a statement Nov. 29 that alleged “infiltration and sabotage efforts by hostile forces” and called for a crackdown. That day, security forces flooded the streets of major cities to make it difficult if not impossible for protestors to gather.

The same day, the Cyberspace Administration of China called for censorship to be moved to “the highest level of content management.”

Protestors responded to allegations of foreign involvement. One video showed Beijing students asking whether the foreign forces might be Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Students made up a big percentage of the protesters.

To get rid of the hotbeds of protests, universities sent students home before the semester ended, thus thinning the ranks of the protesters.

Perhaps the most effective step to tamp down the protests was a seeming willingness by the government to back down. Vice Premier Sun Chunlan on Nov. 30 said that the virus now posed a reduced threat and the country faced a “new reality.” Some local authorities loosened Covid measures.

On Dec.1, Sun said that the country should “prioritize stability while pursuing progress … to optimize the Covid policy.” But while officials were taking a milder tone, police in many cities were knocking on doors and detaining those who took part in demonstrations, The Washington Post reported.

In the long run, the Communist party is not going to let the people think that it is weak and can be opposed at will.

But no one knows when a fire or bus accident may trigger another protest again. The late November protests show that maintaining stable U.S.-China ties isn’t easy as domestic events in China – or in the United States – can easily affect the relationship.

As Chairman Mao Zedong used to say, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.”

-- Contact us at [email protected]



Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.