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Clouds over Celestial Empire. Why China's anti-lockdown protests are escalating into political demands for Xi’s resignation

An unprecedented wave of public protests has engulfed China. While the nation's outrage was initially triggered by coronavirus restrictions, political slogans like “Xi Jinping, go away!” and «We want democracy” were also voiced. After the recent Communist Party congress, it finally became clear that Xi is not going anywhere. The Chinese leader, who had been in power since 2012, took office for the third time, breaking unspoken rules. With power finally concentrated in one pair of hands, Xi is pursuing a policy of zero tolerance for the coronavirus, among other measures, but seems to have overplayed his hand: for the first time in decades, protests in China with political demands have made the front pages of the world media. In many ways, these protests are a response to Xi’s leadership becoming increasingly tyrannic over the years.

  • A game-changer for China's political climate

  • The principle of two presidential terms

  • How Xi prepared China for his third term

  • The Great Sweep

  • Xi's Chinese Dream

  • Resistance to the zero-COVID policy

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A game-changer for China's political climate

On October 23, 2022, during the historic 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, who had led the party and the country since 2012, assumed the position of the CCP's General Secretary and President of the PRC for the third time without any objections. After his re-election, he addressed the nation with a reassuring speech:

“Confronted with new challenges and tests on our new journey, we must remain on high alert and stay sober-minded and prudent like a student sitting for an exam.”

For analysts who made a habit of comparing Xi to his fellow autocrats – Vladimir Putin or Recep Erdogan – his re-election to a third term may seem like an expected outcome. Yet, ahead of the congress, many analysts were cautious in their forecasts. Some of them tried to find grounds for hope that the general secretary might still retire. The reasons for Xi's departure could be the nation's distaste for the Zero-COVID policy and the slumping Chinese economy in recent years. But these hopes waned in April, when the party officially nominated Xi Jinping for the 20th Congress.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese dictator
Xi Jinping, the Chinese dictator

The PRC president's re-election for a third term is an extraordinary, if not unprecedented, event for modern-day China. Xi Jinping has become a rule breaker, interrupting the Chinese governance tradition established by Deng Xiaoping.

The principle of two presidential terms

Under Deng Xiaoping, China's political system underwent a series of critical reforms: not exactly democratic, but certainly anti-autocratic. They were aimed at reducing the possibility of authoritarian leadership and strengthening the party’s system of checks and balances. Some of the reforms were informal, ceremonial rather than statutory, and aimed at establishing political traditions. Thus, Deng Xiaoping voluntarily left office and began the tradition of vetting successors, who were supposed to be each other's counterweights. After Deng, the CCP General Secretary and the head of government (the Prime Minister of the PRC's State Council) came in tandem and had to be appointed by different factions within the party.

Deng Xiaoping hoped that the competitive environment within the Party could prevent the personality cult and create an image of future leaders of the Party and the state as “first among equals”, unlike Mao Zedong and himself. He sought to partition decision-making mechanisms as well, ordering key CCP and government bodies to meet regularly for consultations and base their decisions on consensus. Furthermore, he introduced and enshrined the famous two-term limit for the PRC president, prohibiting his followers from serving more than two terms as the head of state.

Deng Xiaoping, CCP leader from December 1978 to November 1989
Deng Xiaoping, CCP leader from December 1978 to November 1989

In his 2012 book The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, Yale University professor Milan Svolik writes about the working principles of the system Deng Xiaoping designed and envisioned. Once a general secretary’s two terms have expired, party elites begin to expect the transit of power, with different generations of leaders seeking to redistribute authority in their favor and thus limiting the power of the outgoing leader and influencing the election of potential successors. The decision on their appointment could not be made single-handedly and had to be a compromise. The outgoing secretary, in turn, would be interested in appointing their supporters to other important posts, as a way of limiting the elites’ and successors’ influence and protecting his standing and interests. If the head of state clings on to their seat for longer than they should, they will inevitably face opposition from the elites, and not only from potential “replacements” but also from party members who have already invested in the new generation.

In one form or another, the traditions established by Deng Xiaoping have outlived multiple generations of elites. Until Jiang Zemin, the fourth general secretary of the CCP after Deng Xiaoping, no politician had ever served more than one term. Zemin, however, was something of an exception, keeping his seat for two consecutive terms and consolidating power inside the party with relative success – but still stepped down when the time came. Moreover, he clearly sought to maintain his influence by securing re-election in 2002 to the position of chairman of the Central Military Commission, normally held by the current head of government. Nevertheless, two years later, he was forced to resign due to considerable pressure from fellow party members, yielding the post to his successor and Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Until Jiang Zemin, the fourth general secretary of the CCP after Deng Xiaoping, no politician had ever served more than one term

At the same time, the «post-Deng» era saw the emergence of two main cliques within the Communist Party: The Shanghai clique and Tuanpai, or the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction. The Shanghai group consisted mainly of Jiang Zemin's followers – politicians who rose to power during Zemin's mayoralty in Shanghai. Tuanpai grew out of Hu Yaobang's entourage and included politicians from among revolutionary youth, students, and grassroots organizations. The competition between the two factions is traditionally stable, with their representatives taking turns in dominant positions. The last time either faction secured the post of general secretary was the election of Hu Jintao of the CYL faction.

China's political history in the last decades before Xi Jinping came to power demonstrates that the system of checks and balances built by Deng Xiaoping worked quite effectively, providing the PRC’s authoritarian apparatus with internal political stability, preserving the potential for centralized reforms, and preventing the emergence of a new personality cult.

How Xi prepared China for his third term

The difference between Xi and his predecessors lies in his “rebellious” attitude to Deng Xiaoping's system. It was his violation of spoken and unspoken rules that drew the attention of political scientists ahead of the 20th CCP Congress. And this is precisely why the outcome of the congress could become a crucial turning point in China's political climate and threaten the country with another lifelong supreme leader.

The concentration of power in Xi's hands is not just about going for a third term. His plan has been evident since 2018. Back then, just before his re-election to a second term, Xi introduced historic amendments to the Chinese Constitution, abolishing the term limit on the presidency, among other things, with the unanimous support of the National People's Congress legislators (2958 votes in favor and only two against). In this regard, it should be noted that his step had a symbolic value because the Constitution had limited only the tenure of the PRC president, not the general secretary of the party – while it is the latter who has the most power. The two offices were traditionally held by one person, who passed them to his heirs after two terms. The same goes for other positions that are held by the general secretary but are not term-limited. Thus, Jiang Zemin's re-election as chairman of the Central Military Commission after two terms was condemned by the party, causing him to resign from the post. The Constitution played more of a guiding role here, and even though the legal limitation existed only for a single minor post, in reality, it also applied to the general secretary's seat and a few other posts.

PRC President votes on constitutional amendments, 2018
PRC President votes on constitutional amendments, 2018

Meanwhile, it appears that Xi Jinping did not only expect to retain key power in his hands as general secretary but also was determined to avoid sharing it, even symbolically. Xi made it clear to China and the rest of the world that the Constitution and the legacy of previous generations are secondary to his personal power and influence. Limiting himself to one role was beneath his pride, and the imperative to maintain the formal status of the supreme leader determined the need to revise the fundamental laws.

Xi made it clear to China that the Constitution and the legacy of previous generations are secondary to his personal power and influence

Xi also stood out from the Shanghai – Youth League dichotomy, with his appointment being a compromise between the two cliques. Coming from a respected political family, he belonged to the group of “red princes”. The “princes” are less of a faction and more of an umbrella designation for a cohort of wealthy establishment heirs. Xi made extremely good use of his extra-factional position, setting out to form a faction of his own: the “Xi Jinping gang”.

In the meantime, Xi began to eliminate competition early on, organizing campaigns against both major cliques. In his crackdown on competitors, Xi leveraged an anti-corruption agenda, and with good reason, because the tenure of Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor, was marked by a soaring corruption level, reaching an all-time high by 2010, according to some estimates. In many ways, Xi was lucky with the timing, as the domestic situation provided him with a mandate to “sweep” the party clean. However, some analysts, such as Yan Li, a prominent Hong Kong journalist, believe that the anti-corruption campaigns were partly motivated by Xi's somewhat fanatical devotion to his own notion of party purity and that he both played the part of a novice dictator and was a natural product of Chinese institutions and ideology.

Xi offered the positions vacated by his competitors to loyalists from his new “gang”, both in the central bodies and at the provincial level. He also formalized an instrument of his direct control over legislative and development-related initiatives. Xi expanded the role of the so-called “Leading Groups” – advisory bodies within the CCP’s Central Committee - and personally headed nine of them. Under Xi, these groups have become an alternative to Deng Xiaoping's collective leadership concept and have enabled him to retain personal control over the majority of initiatives.

In parallel with the reform and the sweep of central power structures, Xi Jinping was actively suppressing popular protest sentiments. In addition to tightening censorship, introducing the social credit system, and persecuting religious and ethnic minorities, all of which analysts have compared to Maoist nationalism, Xi also sought to suppress grassroots leftist and labor movements, including Maoist associations and circles.

Thus, protests at the Jasic welding equipment factory in Huizhou ended in mass layoffs and arrests. Workers attempted to form a union to protest against poor working conditions and low, delayed pay. News of the workers' struggle and obstacles to union formation spread quickly through mass media and social networks, with students, members of independent leftist organizations, and neo-Maoists joining the protests. Around the same time, major social media accounts and chats appeared, and students began to spread the hashtag #epochpioneer. In the first few days, the authorities arrested 50 students and other protesters. Their further whereabouts are unknown. It is assumed that they, like the leaders of the movement and the account administrators, ended up in “re-education camps”.

Protesters support striking Jasic factory workers outside a police station, China, August 6, 2018
Protesters support striking Jasic factory workers outside a police station, China, August 6, 2018
Reuters / Sue-Lin Wong

The #MeToo movement, which came to China through academia, also led to a major censorship campaign, in which women – female students and professors at first – spoke out about harassment and sexual violence at the hands of their academic superiors and in everyday life.

Eventually, by the end of his second term, Xi had successfully eliminated constitutional obstacles to re-election, consolidated central power in his hands, and greatly increased his control over the political life and ideology of ordinary citizens. From then on, his power was limited only by the remaining restraints of competing cliques inside the party. Despite his power consolidation efforts, several key positions were still held by politicians who disagreed with Xi over a variety of matters. Thus, according to the old tradition, the post of premier during Xi's both terms belonged to Li Keqiang, a representative of a different clique (the CYL faction) and Hu Jintao's protégé, who, unlike Xi, was considered a “moderate” politician with liberal tendencies. Wang Yang, another protégé of Hu's and one of China's most liberal mainstream politicians, led the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – a body deprived of real legislative or administrative power but still carrying considerable political weight.

The Great Sweep

Many representatives of China's economic elite who are interested in the presence of liberal party members in the government to balance out Xi's policies hoped that the general secretary's third term would not strip the party of the pluralism it still had.

However, their hopes were futile. During the 20th Congress, once Xi had secured a smooth re-election, he began the final sweep of the party to eliminate any voices he could not control. The Politburo Standing Committee re-election ended poorly for the “liberal bloc” and Hu Jintao's protégés Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, with both of them losing their posts and being forced to retire. Li will continue performing his duties for another six months. While his successor is still unknown, it will most likely be a Xi supporter from the new Standing Committee. Counting on the elites to promote someone to this position who can counterbalance Xi is unrealistic. In practical terms, the conclusion of the 20th Congress also signified the end of at least one of the two cliques, the CYL. None of the faction's prominent members have remained in power, and there is no reason to assume that anyone could remain active “behind the scenes”.

In practical terms, the conclusion of the 20th Congress also signified the end of at least one of the two cliques, the CYL

Against this backdrop, the final scene of the entire congress – Hu Jintao's “expulsion” – looks even more curious and disturbing. At the closing ceremony, the former general secretary, who was seated to Xi Jinping's left, was escorted out by assistants, who bodily removed him after a brief and seemingly chaotic conversation between the leaders. Official media attributed the incident to Hu’s poor health, claiming he needed urgent assistance. In the evening, the national television showed the ailing former general secretary, reporting that he was feeling better and that his health gave no reason for concern. Of course, we cannot rule out a real ailment because Hu is far from young and might actually have been feeling unwell. But it is hard to refrain from speculation about the possible planned and demonstrative nature of the gesture, although such breaches of protocol and ostentation are not characteristic of official ceremonies, much less those broadcast to the whole world. The «expulsion» of a former general secretary, the leader of an opposing faction that has just been eliminated is a very dramatic gesture, almost like erasing the faces of Stalin's former allies from photographs of the Personality Cult era.

Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing ceremony of the CCP Congress
Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing ceremony of the CCP Congress
AP Photo / Andy Wong

Regardless of whether we witnessed a demonstrative political gesture or whether Hu was indeed unwell, the outcome is the same. Xi effectively seized power in the Party and China at large, getting rid of all his actual and potential opponents and restructuring the party system to his liking. However, it is premature and most likely excessive to prophesy the return of Maoism because Xi clearly sees himself as a politician of a completely different kind, though with equal ambitions. But even without such comparisons, the conclusion invites itself: both one-man power – possibly for life – and a personality cult are beginning to take shape.

The specific model of this new autocracy is still unclear and open only to speculation. Xi might give up Mao-style lifetime power in favor of a time-limited dictatorship similar to that of Deng Xiaoping or, for example, Lee Kuan Yew, the “virtuous dictator” whom Xi has repeatedly praised.

Limitless control over the country until his personal vision has been brought to life and a peaceful retirement to an influential but undemanding position would not have been an unexpected outcome for Xi. As for his future vision, Xi is probably the only one who knows the specifics. However, from his speeches and policies, one could glean a certain end-game more or less reliably: the so-called “Chinese Dream”.

Xi's Chinese Dream

Xi first mentioned the Chinese Dream in 2012, promising to “rejuvenate the Chinese nation”. In his opinion, the nation’s rebirth had to be a cross-cutting process starting from the economy. Even at the beginning of his rule, Xi clearly stated his goal of propelling China to global economic leadership. He also set an ambitious intermediate goal of doubling the GDP before 2020. The new paradigm suggested overhauling the very approach to economic development. Unlike his predecessors, Xi has always prioritized driving domestic consumption and reducing the Chinese economy's dependence on international trade. Publicly, this U-turn is explained by the desire to build a «human-centric» economy and increase general welfare – but it could also be related to Xi's ambition to change China's position as a global power.

One could venture to say that Xi Jinping sees China's strengthening in the international arena not so much as a means to an external end – national security, economic relations, and so on – but as an independent, if not key, goal, a prediction, one that has almost come true, has begun to come true, or most certainly will. Speaking in Paris in 2014, he quoted Napoleon:

“Napoleon said that China was like a lion, and when it awakened, the world would shake. China has already woken up, but it is a peaceful, polite, and civilized lion.”

Xi is enchanted with the idea of Great China. The memory of the former Empire and the legendary Silk Road beckons him. And he is not just dreaming of the past but is actively trying to revive it – in a modernized form. This was how One Belt One Road was born: China's largest international infrastructure project, extending its economic influence throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and, albeit to a lesser extent, Europe. In the same context, Xi contrasts China with the “unipolar world” – painfully familiar from Vladimir Putin's speeches – and the United States in particular. China cannot allow the existence of a single hegemon and must at the very least act as a competitor strong enough that its opponents do not dare even try to interfere in its internal affairs.

Apart from prosperity and influence, the Chinese Dream also paints a picture of a united, incontestable nation. Hong Kong's independence in this vision is not freedom, but chaos, while getting rid of self-government and suppressing protests can bring the long-awaited order. Xi feels similarly about the Taiwan issue. As he reiterated in his re-election speech, China seeks national unification and cannot eliminate the necessity of forceful solutions, as undesirable as they may seem.

Resistance to the zero-COVID policy

Meanwhile, Xi's extension of harsh anti-COVID measures has led to protests. China's pandemic policy, dubbed “zero COVID” or “dynamic clearance”, was tough from the start and included strict and prolonged lockdowns, mass testing, and tighter control of regional borders.

The hard-line suppression of the epidemic, which Xi stubbornly adhered to, was not – and could not have been – challenged within the government. At the same time, the general secretary seems to have been well aware of the possible unpopularity of such measures. From the onset, he distanced himself from direct responsibility, leaving the leading role in the anti-pandemic policy to none other than Premier Li Keqiang. Trusting the “liberal” Li with so much authority may have seemed surprising but in fact made him a convenient scapegoat. In a sense, Xi was right to be cautious because the COVID-19 restrictions did trigger unprecedented mass protests across the country.

Protesters in Beijing, November 27, 2022
Protesters in Beijing, November 27, 2022
AP / Ng Han Guan

On November 15, amid the return of a long and strict lockdown in Guangzhou, mass unrest erupted in the city. There is no detailed information about the numbers and duration of the protests because relevant social media posts were promptly blocked or taken down by censors. On November 24, a fire broke out in a residential building in Urumqi, Xinjiang, killing 10 people. Residents blamed excessive and prolonged anti-COVID restrictions both for the fire and the failure of attempts to contain it. The tragedy was followed by widespread unrest, first in Urumqi itself and then in other parts of the country. Protests erupted at several universities in Beijing and spread to Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Wuhan. Shanghai was at the center of the protests, according to social media reports, with slogans unusual for modern China heard at mass marches: “Down with the Communist Party! Down with Xi!” Therefore, public protests against COVID-19 policies have transformed into broader anti-government protests directed personally against Xi, reaching a scale unprecedented since the Hong Kong protests of 2019-2020. Naturally, this immediately placed them in the international spotlight, certainly undermining Xi's image almost immediately after his re-election.

This is exactly what the general secretary sought to avoid but failed – because of his commitment to his ideas about Zero-COVID and an obedient, consolidated society, as well as a lack of counterbalancing political voices. It is too early to say how the protests will end: in some locations, the authorities will partially accommodate the protesters by easing lockdowns, as they have already done in Urumqi, but elsewhere, the protests will be actively and violently suppressed, just like earlier, smaller-scale unrest. At the same time, the accumulated discontent will not go away, and Xi will have to take it into account. So the general secretary has little chance to become a “benevolent” dictator. The strengthening of his positions will likely be accompanied by tighter control over economic and social life, suppression of protest sentiments, and cultural and national unification.

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