The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new generation of Chinese dissenters might be rising to challenge Xi

Protesters hold sheets of paper at a Nov. 27 vigil in Beijing for victims of an apartment fire in Urumqi, China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The protesters who gathered in Shanghai on the evening of Nov. 26 were mostly in their 20s, born after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Their street chants were daring. “Xi Jinping!” a man in the crowd repeatedly shouted, naming China’s leader. “Step down!” came the reply. This is not normal for China, and it could be a glimpse of a rising generation of dissenters willing to test the limits of China’s mighty police state. They face daunting obstacles.

Protest in China unfolds almost every day: Workers, farmers, students and city dwellers have marched and shouted. Online fury breaks out, too, before it is quieted by censors. Yet the latest demonstrations saw both across multiple cities as anger boiled over at Mr. Xi’s “zero covid” policy and its draconian lockdowns. Moreover, the demonstrations took on a political edge that went beyond just covid-19. A student in Beijing, speaking out against China’s stripping away of individual rights, stepped in front of a crowd and said, “We hope tomorrow’s China doesn’t become today’s North Korea.” Others held up sheets of blank white paper to protest China’s ubiquitous censorship.

By many accounts, those most outspoken in the street protests were university students and young people. Their action might have been sparked by the example of Peng Lifa, whose online name was Peng Zaizhou. On Oct. 13, in an act of singular courage, he unfurled banners on the Sitong Overpass in Beijing that declared:

“Say no to coronavirus testing, yes to livelihood. No to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to Cultural Revolution, yes to reform. No to great leader, yes to voting. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen. Students strike, workers strike, remove the dictator and state thief Xi Jinping.”

Mr. Peng also emailed off a 23-page document titled “A Toolkit for the Removal Of Xi Jinping.” He was arrested and has not been seen since. But his act of defiance ricocheted across social media and resonated in the latest protests.

But a lesson of past efforts is that taking on the Communist Party of China is immensely difficult. The dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who led the drafting of Charter 08, a democracy manifesto, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in China and died there in 2017. A steadfast hardening of the party’s grip, intolerant of calls for a more open and democratic system, has marked Mr. Xi’s decade in power, now extended for another term and perhaps beyond. In addition to the legions of security services and a Great Firewall that closes off portions of the internet, China is the world’s foremost digital surveillance state; in the latest demonstrations, the authorities used facial recognition, cellphone locations and informants to immediately identify those who took to the streets. Any new generation of dissidents will have to survive this dystopian security machine, determined to hunt them down and silence them.

And yet, for a weekend, online protests managed to defy the censors. The report of an apartment building fire in Urumqi, in which 10 people died because of lockdown restrictions, triggered outrage across social media. Videos of street protests showed once again that social media can be a powerful accelerant to mobilize people. A younger generation will have to hone these skills to effectively challenge China’s sophisticated digital dictatorship. The West can help them with internet circumvention tools and by supporting unfettered news and information channels such as Radio Free Asia, which saw record-breaking spikes in traffic for its Mandarin and Cantonese services during the protests.

For Mr. Xi, the pandemic is a public health emergency, as it was in the United States, but no less a political one. China’s party-state can usually cope with a worker strike at a factory or a land dispute, by force if necessary. But no amount of force can extinguish the virus. The prolonged lockdowns, which initially were seen as a success because they reduced transmission and deaths, have infuriated all segments of society, not just the young. Politically, sticking with zero covid will lead to more protest; yet opening too quickly will cause more suffering and illness in a Chinese population that is under-vaccinated. Mr. Xi is in a bind of his own making from which there is no easy exit. China’s leader should realize this and seek the efficacious mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer while closing the vaccination gap among the elderly as quickly as he can. It might hurt China’s pride but would save lives. Another valuable step would be to allow individuals to stay home when sick rather than corralling them into quarantine centers.

Yet the events of the past month suggest that the world should not see Mr. Xi and the Communist Party as the only relevant actors in China. The people, too, have found ways to speak forcefully, suggesting that, just as zero covid could not stamp out covid-19, state repression cannot eliminate dissent and disagreement — only mask it until a spark ignites popular fury. For once, Mr. Xi would be wise to listen rather than punish.

Fourteen years ago, the dissidents and intellectuals who initially signed Charter 08 wrote: “Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country.” Their hopes were dashed. If the pandemic gives rise to a new generation pursuing the same dreams, they ought to be prepared to scale forbidding cliffs, and the rest of the world should cheer them ever higher.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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