No one had foreseen this crisis. Certainly Xi Jinping had not foreseen it after the triumphant conclusion of the twentieth congress of the Communist Party, which allowed him to lock down his power at the helm of the country.
Xi could never have imagined that just two months later, in the very center of Shanghai or on the campus of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing (where he also graduated), his name would be contested and the Communist Party would be asked to step aside. The scene of is repeated in at least fifty other universities and in many cities of the country.
To understand how audacious these gestures are, born out of exasperation with anticovid measures and the desire for freedom, one must bear in mind that nothing like this had ever happened after the spring of 1989, when the democratic movement in Tiananmen Square was bloodily repressed on June 4th. In three decades, China has experienced several protests, but never of this magnitude, especially after the advent of Xi in 2012.
Covid-19 has turned China into a world of its own. By refusing to accept the import of Western vaccines that allow the rest of the planet to “coexist with the virus”, China has perched on a “zero covid” strategy which, however, no longer works.
Today all Chinese provinces are affected by the restrictive measures. The population is subjected to interminable lockdowns (already a hundred days in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang) which are applied with bureaucratic zeal bordering on the absurd. But there is also a tragic side. At the origin of the explosion of anger there is in fact the fire of a building in Ürümqi which caused the death of ten people. Residents say anti-Covid restrictions have prevented help from arriving in time.
This drama has unleashed a storm, which in turn has exposed a latent social and identity malaise in the ranks of a middle class disillusioned by border closures, an economic slowdown and a feeling of suffocation.
The Chinese government is grappling with a dilemma: it doesn’t want to disavow the “zero covid” policy but at the same time it cannot keep a population that can no longer resist locked up forever. How China emerges from this impasse will shape the political future of this unforeseen crisis. Beijing will try to avoid a new Tiananmen, but will not hesitate to react if it deems its power threatened.
In a country where no organized opposition is tolerated, the spontaneous democratic contagion worries power. Above all, the revival of universities, to which the high unemployment rate among young graduates undoubtedly contributes.
The harmonious facade presented by the Communist Party of China has shattered on the “zero covid”. Now Beijing will have to rebuild a social contract beyond empty slogans such as “Chinese dream” or “common prosperity”.
By repeating over and over that the West is in decline and that the Chinese model is in full swing, Xi thought he had banished the democratic temptation that has frightened China for over a century. But he failed to erase what Nathan Law, exiled leader of the Hong Kong uprising, defined with an effective formula: “The desire to get out of the cage and fly”. At this point, it is difficult to get the population back into the cage.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)