A tragic fire has compounded public discontent with Xi's policies
To paraphrase Mao, some sparks can ignite history. In China, that spark — or more accurately a major fire in a housing block — seems to have galvanised public anger at the repressive policies of the Chinese state.
On the night of 24th November, ten people died and nine others were seriously injured in a fire in a high-rise housing block in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Some reports suggest that the residents were locked inside as part of China’s Zero Covid policy and were unable to escape. China Daily, a newspaper of the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, was sufficiently rattled to rush out a statement: “It has been confirmed by sources from the community and fire crews that none of the doors to the apartments or the building were sealed.”
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Whether that is true or not is of no consequence: increasing numbers of vocal protesters are refusing to believe it and have taken to the streets. Ordinary people are chanting, “You’ll pay for what you did” and openly calling for President Xi Jinping to resign.
Little information has been released, but it seems that many of those residents are thought to be Muslim. Even though we have been led to believe that Chinese people have no concern for those living in Xinjiang, the outrage at the lives lost led, within 24 hours, to violent protests in Shanghai, some 2000 miles away.
At the same time, riots in Zhengzhou’s Foxconn factory have gone viral on social media. Camera footage shows workers smashing up testing centres and battling the authorities. It challenges the official version of events that workers were demanding better Covid protection, and has shown the nation that there are like-minded protesters, unwilling to accept the authority and abuse of state officials.
Over the weekend of 26-27th November there have been substantial protests in a number of cities across China, from Urumqi to Shanghai, from Beijing to Nanjing. Tens of thousands have risked the brutality of the Dabai (“big whites”), the army of thugs dressed in hazmat outfits masquerading as Covid health workers. Protestors are demanding an end to the lockdowns, and to constant monitoring and testing. Their bravery is summed up by one placard: “There’s only one disease in the world and that’s lack of freedom.”
Xi’s relentless pursuit of Zero Covid, using isolation as a tool to combat the disease, has been proved devastatingly wrong. In the beginning, the authorities could point to remarkably low Covid fatalities compared to the Western world. Just 5,250 deaths have been officially recorded in a population of 1.4 billion, compared to 1 million officially registered Covid fatalities in the USA amongst a much smaller population.
Millions of people have been locked down in cities across the country on the discovery of as few as 50 cases. When lockdown statistics looked good in comparison to the West, this was accepted. But last week’s massive spike in cases — the biggest for three years — has demonstrated that lockdown has not improved the public health situation one bit. It is also increasingly apparent that lockdown is the only strategy on offer.
Middle-class families have lost businesses, university graduates have lost their education, and industrialists have seen their profits plummet. Anger is not very far from the surface in major urban conurbations. Everyone on social media can see that the West has opened up without too many problems. It therefore seems that the Urumqi fire, the spike in cases and the wage protests at Foxconn’s factory have seeded a perfect storm. The situation may now be reaching a tipping point.
That said, it would take a brave or foolish person to predict what will happen next. Will there be a relaxation of Covid rules, a brutal crackdown by the Party, an admission of state overreach, an acknowledgement of its failure of leadership, or even the fall of the regime? China has a habit of defying simplistic prophecies, but over time the dynamics of national and international politics suggests that all of these things may come to pass. Whatever happens, this conflagration will markedly change China.