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HomeOpinionGlobal PrintWhy China's protests against Zero Covid won’t challenge Xi Jinping yet

Why China’s protests against Zero Covid won’t challenge Xi Jinping yet

Scholars and diplomats at the prestigious Institute of Chinese Studies conference discussed Socialism with Chinese characteristics in the New Era last week. Here’s what they said.

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Student protests against China’s strict zero-Covid policy seem to have largely subsided, even as President Xi Jinping told visiting European Union President Charles Michel in Beijing that the momentary unrest had been carried out by “frustrated teenagers.”

But during the week, protest videos from cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Urumqi made it past heavy Chinese censorship to tell the rest of the world about anger, dissension and frustration in the world’s second largest economy.

So, what do these protests tell us about China? Are they just a flash in the pan? A symptom of dissatisfaction against the expanding control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the “new era” under Xi Jinping? How is Comrade Xi positioning his own legacy in the pantheon of the Chinese greats – Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping? And how does India look at a rising China, especially in light of the border crisis in Ladakh?

As the warm waters of the Arabian Sea washed the shores of Goa a few days ago, a bevy of influential China-watchers, both Indian and international, debated the subject under the aegis of the prestigious Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), with a little help from the conservative German think-tank, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Goa University.

Also read: China protests a ‘grey rhino’ moment for Xi Jinping. And it will only get stronger

Making Xi supreme

Certainly, the ICS forum agreed that Xi Jinping had consolidated his power, even if it was at the cost of ideology, and elevated himself to become part of the Mao-Deng-Xi trinity. If Mao made the people rise up and Deng made them rich, then Xi’s core message is to make China great again. In fact, the US-China contest is framed precisely in this narrative, about the years of humiliation experienced by the Chinese people at the hands of the West at least since the opium wars more than 150 years ago.

Alka Acharya, ICS director and JNU professor, noted that the Chinese protests “come at a time when Xi Jinping has emerged as one of China’s most powerful leaders since Mao… and (constitute) a major challenge to his leadership.”

But, she pointed out, it was important to note that the protests “don’t really constitute ‘dissent’ in the sense of political opposition to the Communist Party,” which is why the Chinese leadership would likely adopt “a calibrated carrot and stick” policy.

According to Israeli scholar Tuvia Gering, Xi Jinping is not just China’s most powerful man, but he is also its “storyteller-in-chief,” reiterating the message that powerful enemies in the West have held the microphone for too long and that China’s stories need to be told by the Chinese themselves.

That’s why it was imperative to restore the great Chinese nation and establish the China dream.

Perhaps it wasn’t enough for Xi to be part of the trinity alongside Mao and Deng, said Indian scholar B.R. Deepak, but he wanted to demonstrate the fact that it was no longer necessary, like Deng had famously said, to “cross the river by feeling the stones.” The stones, said Deepak, quoting a Chinese scholar, were metaphors for “western tools” and now that China was on its way to becoming a first-world power, it was necessary to “denounce Deng” and build bridges over the river.

One way of establishing the “China dream”, said India’s former ambassador to China Ashok Kantha, is to suppress both dissent and faction-fighting. The outspoken former party general secretary Hu Jintao’s shock removal from the Politburo Standing Committee during the 20th Party Congress in October is said to be one way of silencing dissent – as has been the crackdown on student protests last week.

Certainly, faction-fighting in the highly centralised CCP, the largest political party in the world with 96 million members, is a hardy perennial. The popular Chinese word for nexus and networking is “Guanxi” and no one half-way ambitious is free from its attractions. Hu Jintao was the leader of a group called “Tuanpai” within the CCP since his Communist Youth League days; in fact, one rumour in Beijing that reached Goa’s shores was that Hu was purged from the Party Congress because he wanted to see what the fates were lining up for his high-flier son Hu Haifeng, party secretary of Lishui in Zhejiang province.

One way of getting rid of factions, of course, is to do what Mao did: launch the Cultural Revolution, no matter at what cost, encourage the weakening of bonds to the Party and promote loyalty to himself.

Also read: Xi’s promotion of technocrats has two goals—compete with US, reduce challenge to his power

Using Asian nations

Xi also seems determined to revamp and expand influence not just by enforcing the professing of Xi Jinping Thought, but by using China’s chief instrument of influence abroad, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Party interest now becomes national interest. It follows that as the CPC’s legitimacy is reinforced, so is the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Africa, said Jabin Jacob, professor at Shiv Nadar University, is a major focus in the global south and Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is of particular interest. So, as thousands of rosewood and ebony trees continue to be illegally felled in Madagascar aimed at the China market, Beijing pushes the intimacy by building a football stadium and posting 140 language instructors to school the country’s top officials in Chinese.

Question is, is the BRI losing steam? In Nepal, where the CCP brought together the different factions of Nepali Communists in 2018 — only for it to split three years later – all eyes are on the results of the election next week as to how the Communists have fared. While in Sri Lanka, the former disgraced president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is believed to be pulling the strings behind the current President Ranil Wickeramasinghe’s decision to allow the Chinese research vessel into Hambantota Port.

As to why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the Line of Actual Control in 2020, Isaac Kardon of the US Naval War college said China wanted to send the message that India should not build infrastructure in “disputed territory”.

But another view that emerged in Goa was that India was really China’s only real rival in Asia — even if China’s economy was five times larger and other parameters of influence many times greater — and could tie down China in the region. So China wanted to ensure that India was kept on its toes, not having the space to develop itself. And what better way to do that than keep it stretched on the border?

The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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