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Geopolitics

Watching China, And The Western Trap Of Wishful Thinking

While many Chinese citizens are indeed fed up with the government’s Zero-COVID policy, predicting that a mass revolt is ready to overturn Communist rule is the latest sign of our deep misunderstanding of the Asian superpower. A view from Bogotá of a former Beijing correspondent.

Watching China, And The Western Trap Of Wishful Thinking

People in San Francisco organized a protest to support anti Zero-COVID Chinese demonstrators

Santiago Villa

-Analysis-

BOGOTÁ — It isn’t easy to gauge the scope of the protests in China on the basis of Western media reports. Beyond the correspondents present on the ground, those running news operations in Europe and especially the United States have tended to overestimate the public discontent, exaggerate economic problems and project a greater desire for freedoms and democracy than really exists in China.

Meanwhile here in Latin America, the editorial tendency has instead been to highlight the 'eccentric' aspects of modern Chinese culture, which has strengthened some existing myths and misperceptions. Coverage of politics was always cautious and reporting on the regional characteristics of China's economic progression hardly a top item on our weekend news bulletins. When I was a freelance journalist in China, it was always easier for me to sell articles on, say, types of firearms you could buy there on Taobao, a Chinese equivalent of Amazon.


I am barely qualified to criticize the quality of reporting on China then, as I myself fed this “Orientalism” in my time. While editor of China Files, once the only independent news outlet reporting in Spanish from China (only available in Italian now), we just needed clicks on our webpage. To achieve this I designed a section entitled the Truth on China (La verdad sobre China), where every week we responded to some received ideas on China, and the more tabloidy the better! Our most widely read item ever was on whether or not the Chinese eat dog meat.

Will the COVID protests last?

Today, we want to know whether or not recent protests against COVID-19 restrictions could lead to the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party. If I had to put money on this today, I would say a clear no.

On the one hand, the motivation for the protests, which is primarily a criticism of the way the pandemic has been handled, does not imply political reforms. Unlike the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests to which the current movement has been repeatedly compared in past days, direct attacks on the government and the system have been marginal — even though those instances are receiving intense coverage from Western media, generating even bigger hopes of real movement.

The party is calculating how to relax COVID restrictions while paying the lowest possible political cost.

The Communist Party can adjust its COVID-19 policies without approaching, even remotely, the terrain of structural reforms. It will just cause a bit of embarrassment for the country's paramount leader, Xi Jinping. Students at Tiananmen instead were calling for an end to corruption and fundamental democratic reforms.

These protests so far have been few, brief and disorganized. They are not mass gatherings that go on for days, nor have they fueled existing divisions inside the Communisty Party leadership. The party is calculating how to relax COVID restrictions while paying the lowest possible political cost. The absurdity of it is that Xi Jinping's inflexibility has pushed the regime into a corner.

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their face-to-face bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit

Adam Schultz/White House/Planet Pix via ZUMA

Xi’s pride

Firstly, for foolish reasons of nationalism, Xi decided that only Chinese vaccines would be applied in China. Compared to their Western alternatives, the relative inefficacy of Sinovac has forced the state to impose the Zero-COVID restrictions, to avoid a health service overload. Secondly, the state has allowed local administrations to implement this policy their own way, without close supervision. Indeed, bad local policy is believed to have led to the death of 10 people in a fire in a quarantine facility in the city of Urumqi, which sparked the recent protests.

Pragmatism seems to have no place in Xi's China.

One of the biggest dangers for any autocratic leader is that all the country's problems, small and big, will come to be seen as his responsibility. And any change of policy will be read as a sign of weakness and confusion. Xi wants to avoid the embarrassment of accepting the monumental failure of his pandemic management, yet cannot, sustainably, go on denying the likelihood of this coronavirus circulating worldwide for decades more. China simply cannot be shut indefinitely.

So there will be changes, but they will be gradual. They will start to be applied in some smaller cities before being extended. The big cities, meanwhile, will have fewer quarantines but more arrests of anyone challenging the regime.

The most effective response would be to introduce a greater variety of vaccines into the Chinese health system. It is of course unlikely that Communist Party pride will allow authorities to find a practical solution. What has become clear is that the pragmatism that had allowed China to take what was good from the West and become the enormous success from the 1980s to 2010 seems to have no place in Xi's China.

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