Beijing: China’s leaders normally spend a lot of time and money on keeping the country’s 1.4 billion people in line — and that was before a global pandemic ravaging the world economy threatened to put millions out of work.
A rare street clash over the weekend on the border of virus-stricken Hubei province shows the challenges President Xi Jinping faces as China looks to get its economy moving again after appearing to gets its Covid-19 outbreak under control. Hubei is only now emerging from a two-month lockdown that helped limit the virus’s spread to other parts of China.
The scenes, captured on videos posted on social media, showed Hubei police clashing with officers from neighboring Jiangxi province who wanted to keep the border closed. Residents charged at police in riot gear, with bystanders cheering them on with chants of “Hubei, step on the gas.”
“Chinese leaders were already worried about stability before the Covid-19 outbreak,” said Trey McArver, partner at China-based consultancy Trivium China. “Now those anxieties are on steroids. The scenes at the Hubei-Jiangxi border will only serve to exacerbate those worries.”
Communist Party leaders have recently expressed concern about unrest in the fallout from epidemic. While China spends more on internal security than national defense, giving the party ample tools to quash political dissidents, local officials have struggled at times to contain bursts of anger due to bread-and-butter issues such as labor disputes, investment fraud and environmental disasters.
Guo Shengkun, who heads the party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, told cadres in a nationwide teleconference last week to be constantly alert to potential stability risks “as if treading on thin ice,” according to a report in the official Legal Daily published Sunday. He also called for pre-emptive and targeted measures to deal with any emerging problems.
Hubei officials are under pressure to get the province’s migrant workers back to work as quickly as possible, after the lockdown drained them of cash and disrupted their lives, said Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University. The province sends six million people to work in industrial clusters along the coast and the greater Beijing.
“The central government will be worried that similar clashes could spread to other places,” Gu said. “They want Hubei people to ease into nationwide work resumption, except into Beijing. But different provinces have different calculations.”
Ying Yong, the provincial party chief who took over after his predecessor was ousted following initial efforts to play down the virus, has urged other provinces to “be kind to” Hubei people. But officials in other provinces also face pressure from top leaders to control the virus spread, making them reluctant to open their borders.
Even Beijing still bars residents of Hubei who don’t have a job or a residence registry in the capital even though similar restrictions have been lifted elsewhere. Shanghai returned several bus loads of migrant workers from Hubei earlier this month, local media reported.
To further complicate matters, a report earlier this month said people were still testing positive in Wuhan — Hubei’s provincial capital — four days after China said the city had seen no new cases. The province has accounted for the bulk of the more than 80,000 Covid-19 cases in China so far.
Communist Party leaders are allowing the infighting between provinces because they don’t see it as a threat to Xi directly, according to Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies.
“By pitting one group of people against another, making them fight against each other, the Communist Party is letting the steam out,” Lam said. “In the long run, this is not good for national unity.”
Ultimately, China’s bigger problem will be ensuring people get back to work. Xi on Sunday was on hand to oversee the resumption of operations at a port and industrial park producing auto parts in eastern Zhejiang province, one of China’s largest export bases.
China’s government “needs to get the economy restarted as quickly as possible, and it must at the same time prevent the virus from coming back in force,” said McArver at Trivium China. “It’s not clear that both goals are achievable.”