The igniting spark came from a power strip on the 15th floor of a locked high-rise building in Ürümqi, the capital of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. It not only sparked a fire that killed ten people because security forces failed to get past lockdown barriers in time, but also protests against the government’s zero-Covid strategy that spread like wildfire across the country over the weekend.

Street protests formed in a number of cities with over a million inhabitants, videos show them in the capital Beijing, the economic metropolis of Shanghai or in Wuhan, where the pandemic once began. All cities that were already under lockdowns or are at risk of being locked down again in view of 40,000 new infections.

It is the largest wave of protests in China since the pro-democracy movement in 1989, which ended in a massacre of demonstrators on Tiananmen Square. Why did it trigger a disaster in the Uyghur province of Xinjiang?

Danger to life within your own four walls

“I believe that the people who are currently being affected by lockdowns themselves in China were startled by the incident in Ürümqi,” says sinologist Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik to KURIER. “They have realized that being locked in your own four walls can be life-threatening.”

In addition, the police are more present in no other Chinese province than in the Uyghur region of Xinjiang – and nowhere else are they more notorious for their brutality. “Nevertheless, the protests there were not brutally suppressed, which was an incentive for many in the rest of the country to also take to the streets,” said Weigelin-Schwiedrzik.

Will the protests pose a threat to Xi Jinping?

The protest in Shanghai is particularly explosive: videos show how the criticism there was not only directed at the zero-Covid strategy, but directly at the president. Specifically, individual demonstrators chanted: “Down with the communist party! Down with Xi Jinping!”

So will the protests soon be nationwide against the system?

“I don’t think the protests can pose a threat to the regime,” says China expert Thomas Eder from the Austrian Institute for International Politics (oiip). He does not believe that the government will be able to move away from zero-Covid in the near future, because “reporting in the party media promises nothing else”. The protests are not reported there at all.

pressure on the provinces

“Xi deliberately handed over responsibility for dealing with the protests to the provinces so that nothing falls back on him,” says Weigelin-Schwiedrzik. Each province can therefore decide for itself whether to react with easing or toughness. But there is a catch: “The party leadership in Beijing will pay close attention to which province is loyal to Xi – i.e. suppressing protests – and who is drifting off course.”

Ironically, the government of Xinjiang, otherwise known for its harshness, drifted away on Monday: For the first time in three months, the residents of Ürümqi are allowed to leave their blocks of flats to run errands.

In other parts of the country, especially in Shanghai, Eder expects waves of arrests. A classic communist party move would be to allow protests to continue during the day – “and then arrest those who have particularly exposed themselves at home at night.”

By Editor

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