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The largest protests in more than 30 years rocked China as tens of thousands of demonstrators across the country filled the streets to denounce Beijing’s zero-COVID quarantine and testing policies. But some of the demonstrations quickly evolved into demands for political change, including the removal of President Xi. Nick Schifrin spoke with long-time China watcher Minxin Pei about the protests.
The largest protests since Tiananmen Square in 1989 are rocking China, as tens of thousands of demonstrators across the country fill the street this weekend to denounce Beijing's strict quarantine and testing policies known as zero COVID.
But some of the demonstrations quickly evolved into demands for political change, including the removal of President Xi Jinping himself.
Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.
In the southwestern city of Chengdu, protesters demand freedom. "Freedom of press," they chant, "freedom of speech."
In the central city of Wuhan, where COVID began, they break down the fence that kept them quarantine. And in the Western city of Urumqi, they fly the flag and demand the end of lockdowns, nationwide protests lit by a literal fire in Urumqi last week. Witnesses say a COVID lockdown trapped residents in a burning building and killed at least 10.
But this is a national release of pent-up anger. They're furious with zero COVID and its brutal enforcement, which continued this weekend on a BBC reporter in Shanghai. There, in China's largest city, the protests got personal. "Step down," Xi Jinping, they chant, one of the few times in years the demonstrators used his name.
The protest spread to the Capitol, Beijing, including Tsinghua University, one of the country's most famous campuses. Those who didn't want to make it explicit didn't have to, a blank piece of paper or an equation by physicist Alexander Friedmann,as in free man, which many protesters no longer are.
Protester (through translator):
In Shanghai, a lot of people have already been detained. They did it for everybody, for all the people. Free those people in Shanghai.
In Washington today, national security spokesman John Kirby endorsed Chinese citizens' right to peaceful protest.
John Kirby, NSC Coordinator For Strategic Communications:
Lockdown is not a policy that we support here. But, obviously, there are people in China that have concerns about that, and they're protesting that. And we believe they should be able to do that peacefully.
Beijing maintains the world's strictest COVID controls. Hundreds of millions of people must submit to daily tests and quarantine for extended periods. Recently, China relaxed some rules and shortened quarantines for close contacts of COVID patients and for foreign visitors, eliminated contact tracing for secondary contacts and phased out routine mass testing in several cities.
Today, Beijing City announced it would further ease some quarantine rules, and Guangzhou reduced mass testing. But, today, Chinese authorities defended zero COVID and denied that national unrest threatened the policy.
Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman (through translator):
China been following the dynamic zero COVID policy and has been making adjustments. We believe that, with the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the cooperation from the Chinese people, our fight against COVID-19 will be successful.
And for more on the significance of these protests, we turned a long time China watcher Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
Minxin Pei, thanks very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."
How significant do you think these protests are?
Minxin Pei, Director of International and Strategic Studies, Claremont McKenna College: These are very significant protests in three respects.
First, for the first time, we have seen simultaneous protests in major Chinese cities. But the other thing about this round of protests is that participants seem to come from a wide range of social backgrounds. And that has not happened in the last 30 years.
And, third and most importantly, some of the demands are explicitly political. We have now heard ordinary people chanting for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down. So, all these three things make these protests very, very significant.
Because we should note that it's not that protest is unprecedented in China. It is just that most protests we have seen for the last 30 years and certainly since Xi Jinping took power have been localized, have been local groups objecting to local policies.
Ordinary protests typically have local issues, socioeconomic issues, and they never spill beyond the boundaries of a county or a small town. But, this time, it's very, very difficult.
We have seen Beijing in recent days take baby steps to ease some of its zero COVID policies. But the message from Xi Jinping himself, elevating people who have enacted the strictest forms of zero COVID, could that message be changed or adjusted at all because of these protests?
I think these protests will force the government and, in particular, President Xi Jinping to adjust his policy, because the message from the protests, protesters is also quite clear.
The current situation is not tolerable, and they want the government to change its course.
A Chinese official told me that he feared that, if China opened up, more than a million people would die.
Isn't that fear legitimate, since China's vaccines have been proven to be less effective than Western mRNA vaccines, which are still not allowed in the country?
The honest answer is that nobody knows. Of course, if they open up, there will be a surge in case infections and, also, there will likely be a surge of hospitalization, and, obviously, there will be an increase in the number — in the number of deaths.
Now, you have to sort of balance that against now what appears to be a nationwide demand for the government to change its course. But, if I have to guess, I think I'm leaning toward a gradual relaxation, rather than doubling down on the policy that seems to be delivering nothing but misery.
Is there any evidence that anyone around Xi Jinping, anyone who has power or influence over him object to this policy that has been so closely associated with him personally?
No, not at that level.
I think, at the very top level, President Xi has a group of colleagues that he personally trusts and that — and those colleagues will back his policy, no matter what. I think what the Chinese leadership probably worries a lot more about is local officials, because local officials are on the front line of enforcing zero COVID. And these people are human beings too.
So they're tired, they're frustrated, and probably they would like to have a course correction as well.
And zero COVID hasn't only caused social protests. It's depressed growth. China's growing at the second slowest rate in 46 years.
What does it say about Xi Jinping that he appears to be prioritizing zero COVID over economic growth?
Well, I think, at some point, he has to balance zero COVID with economic losses.
So, if you do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, China has lost about 2 percent of GDP in terms of gross, and that comes down to about at least $350 billion. So, that's a very big number. And that affects employment. That affects government expenditures.
But he has made the decision toward loyalty and toward control over growth in the past, hasn't he?
But I think, when he made those decisions, the economic costs were not that obvious. Today, the costs are undeniable, and these costs amount. So, as Chinese leader, now it's his third term. He will not look at what is happening now. He has look at what is going to happen in the next five years. So, making a cost shift might be the smartest thing to do than sticking with a very costly policy.
Minxin Pei, thank you very much.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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