By William J. Furney
It all looked so rosy for Xi Jinping just a few weeks ago in Bali. There on the lush Indonesian resort island peppered with dazzling ricefields and ornate Hindu temples, the newly reelected leader of the Chinese Communist Party, in for a record third time, gathered with other world leaders for the G20 jamboree. It, mostly, was all smiles in balmy tropical weather — apart from the derided and ostracised Russian element headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, over their Ukraine misadventure — as they sat and chatted and Xi, it seemed, had China, and the world, at his feet.
Then along came covid, all over again.
The place where the virus first emerged, likely at a wet market in Wuhan selling pangolins, bats, snakes and other strange creatures for human food, is hanging around in China after sweeping a world that has jabbed itself up and moved on. Chinese wonder at maskless World Cup scenes in Doha as they’re still — three years on — locked down and unable to leave their homes.
Xi’s zero-covid policy is suddenly testing his authoritarian mettle like never before, as emboldened citizens take to the streets and call for an end to his dictatorial regime, sparked by a lockdown apartment fire in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi that killed 10 people. The state’s massive and overreaching censorship system has gone into rabid overdrive in the past week, furiously hunting down and deleting any online criticism of the brittle Dear Leader and calls for him to step aside.
What started out as covid fury has metastasised into a wider anger over Xi’s iron-fisted rule that usurps democracy and people’s freedoms; the “Big Silence” means the narrative is controlled right down to what you can access on the internet and the stories people are fed by the Chinese media: We will tell it, our way, and you had better believe it.
“Today, while force cannot be ruled out, the claustrophobic repression that underpins Xi’s rule as leader of the Chinese Communist Party is grounded in cyberspace,” writes Ian Williams, author of The Fire of the Dragon — China’s New Cold War, in The Times. “Xi is using tools of surveillance and social control that Chairman Mao could never have dreamed of: he has built a digital totalitarian state,” he says, in a piece about the country’s “digital Stasi” that has 540 million cameras and is omnipotent and all-seeing in its feverish attempts to crush any disloyalty.
But the fed-up and creative Chinese have found ways to get around Big Online Brother to vent their frustrations at a freedom-denying ruler. They’re flipping videos on their side and posting on Weibo, Douyin (TikTok), WeChat and other platforms — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and more Western services are too much of a threat to the leadership and are therefore banned — and using filters to outwit the algorithms of the Great Firewall of China. And they can log onto outlawed sites using VPNs.
“This is a decisive breach of the big silence,” internet freedom researcher Xiao Qiang, of the University of California, Berkeley, told The New York Times. “Once the anger spills onto the street, it becomes much harder to censor,” he said.
Nationwide protests morphing from cyberspace to the streets of China are the biggest sign of people’s dissent since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 that saw the tanks sent in. The normally docile Chinese have had enough, and covid is propelling them to make their crushed voices heard.
This time it’s working.
Amid low covid vaccination rates, using its own, less-effective jab — and the country’s refusal to take Western-made, more-effective vaccines — authorities are suddenly scaling back testing and lifting lockdowns and quarantines as the protests spiral.
Beijing “is unwilling to take a better vaccine from the West, and is instead relying on a vaccine in China that’s just not nearly as effective against [the] Omicron [variant],” US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said at a defence forum in California this weekend.
“Seeing protests and the response to it is countering the narrative that [Xi] likes to put forward, which is that China is so much more effective at government,” she said. “It’s, again, not something we see as being a threat to stability at this moment, or regime change or anything like that.
“How it develops will be important to Xi’s standing.”
In the alternate-world vision of the thin-skinned Beijing mandarins’ self-created dystopia, the fumbling lieutenants, desperate not to lose face, have issued diktats to television producers ordering them not to show fans, maskless, at World Cup games, instead to cut away to less provocative scenes.
Because it just won’t do to show that pugilistic Xi and his draconian policies have failed, in his long battle with covid, and just about everything else.