China's recent wave of protests could see a resurgence in the coming year: analysts

Exiled dissidents say the 'white paper' and fireworks protest movements herald a broader political change.
By Han Qing and Hwang Chun-mei for RFA Mandarin
2023.01.04
China's recent wave of protests could see a resurgence in the coming year: analysts Protesters in the Chinese province of Henan damage a police car after police tried to enforce a ban on fireworks in Hongdaoyuan Square in Henan's Luyi County, on Monday, Jan 2, 2023.
Credit: Netizen-provided screenshot from video

The recent wave of ‘white paper’ movement and the New Year’s protests over a nationwide ban on fireworks could be the beginning of a broader political resistance to authoritarian rule under Chinese President Xi Jinping, exiled political activists said in recent interviews.

Veteran dissidents who have spent decades campaigning for, thinking and writing about democracy in China said the momentum of the recent protests is likely far from spent.

"Some people are saying that the ‘white paper’ movement is over, but we are still seeing expressions of popular feeling, including the recent fireworks movement," former 1979 Democracy Wall movement leader Wei Jingsheng said. 

"They may be fairly minor, but they still indicate that there is opposition to Xi Jinping, and to the Communist Party," he said.

"People are less and less willing to tolerate the Communist Party's dictatorial rule," said Wei, who now lives in the United States. "Given the prevalence of this mood, it's possible that more unexpected developments could happen."

Wei said nobody had foreseen the recent wave of "white paper" protests sparked by a fatal lockdown fire in Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi which appeared in cities across China in late November.

"Nobody foresaw the fireworks movement either," he said. "What is foreseeable is that there is going to be a huge wave of COVID-19 infections this Lunar New Year, which will have a direct effect on the stability of this regime."

‘Patriotic education’

To be sure, the recent wave of protests could well fade and not lead to wider change amid government attempts to squelch overt public resistance. 

Unconfirmed reports have been circulating on social media suggesting that the authorities in Henan, where the protesters faced off with police ostensibly over a fireworks ban at New Year’s, will be stepping up "patriotic education" efforts among students in the province, in a bid to nip any mass popular resistance in the bud.

But veteran current affairs commentator Chen Pokong said redoubling efforts to teach young people to "love" their country and the Communist Party is unlikely to help at this stage.

"This has been the failure of the Xi Jinping era, because ideological work and political education were his main areas of focus, and he started with kids in primary school," Chen said. "After 10 years of such efforts, the fact that the Communist Party has to keep talking about [doing more of it] just shows how much of a failure they have been."

"The vast majority of people will continue to push back against the Communist Party," he said. "People who lack all hope react by developing a new level of awareness."

‘Barbaric policies’

Hu Ping, the U.S.-based former editor-in-chief of the dissident magazine Beijing Spring said Xi’'s personal power likely peaked when he was voted through for an unprecedented third term in office at the 20th party congress in October.

He said the "white paper" protests were a direct response to three years of mass surveillance, rolling lockdowns and incarceration in quarantine camps under Xi's rigid coronavirus restrictions.

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People gather for a vigil for victims of the fire in Urumqi and hold white sheets of paper to protest COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing, Nov. 27, 2022. Credit: Reuters

"It was harder to mount a collective resistance in the past because the Communist Party had typically always targeted people with certain identities, as well as those who were willing to express their strong disaffection in public based on their political ideas," Hu said.

"But the barbaric policies of zero-COVID affected everyone indiscriminately, so everyone feels they are being severely persecuted, and shares a common feeling of hatred," he said. "So collective resistance is far more likely right now, because of the resonance of these emotions."

Hu said the fact that protests have already begun across the country will embolden others to follow suit.

"Once this kind of action breaks out, and people start taking to the streets and standing together with even more people, they will be inspired and encouraged," he said. "[We have already seen] slogans and political demands for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down."

"Once this keeps happening, people's confidence and resolve to oppose the government will be strengthened, and the effect of that shouldn't be underestimated," Hu said.

Rising discontent

Wei said he believes the collapse of the Communist Party regime isn't far off.

"China's democracy movement has been more than 40 years in the making, after many ups and downs, twists and turns," Wei said. "The situation in China right now is that there is poor economic growth, massive spread of disease."

"A lot of young people can't find work, while the elderly just continue to die," he said.

"This has meant that the democracy movement has started to find popular favor again, not through propaganda work from a bunch of intellectuals, but because ordinary people are influencing each other,” he said.

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Patients lie on beds and stretchers in the hallway of a hospital emergency department in Shanghai, China, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: Reuters

This means that any future movement may not actually require a leader.

"I have a good feeling about the Chinese democracy movement right now, because people are very different from the way they were 40 years ago, when they didn't feel quite so deeply that China should be democratic," Wei said.

"Xi Jinping's perverse policies are already unbearable to the general public, and everyone can now see the difference between democracy and autocracy because of how fast information travels nowadays," he said.

Historical pattern?

U.S.-based veteran democracy activist Wang Juntao said that mass popular resistance movements in history had often started out in sporadic and spontaneous protests over specific incidents.

"If you look at the events that are happening today, and then look at similar events in history, you can see that today is just the beginning," Wang said. "There is a kind of inevitability about the mechanism."

"Whether it's the 'white paper' movement or the fireworks movement, they will lead to a larger-scale political movement that puts forward clear political demands," he said.

Hu said he expects widespread social unrest in 2023, likely targeting Xi as a leader, who bears much of the blame for the pandemic following the suppression of COVID-19 whistleblowers like the late doctor Li Wenliang in its early stages in the central city of Wuhan.

Wei said he hopes for "peaceful evolution" from an authoritarian regime to a constitutional democracy in China.

"Peaceful evolution is still everyone's greatest hope, and would be the best route," he said. "But we can't rule out the possibility that various emergent situations could trigger the collapse of the entire regime."

"A peaceful [democratic] transition under pressure, as happened in Taiwan, is looking increasingly likely," Wei said. "I expect to see more protest movements in the year to come."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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