Four days of demonstrations against Beijing’s “zero covid” policy, which have reverberated across China with little sign of fading, amount to one of the most widespread expressions of discontent the country has seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
President Xi Jinping, the most powerful and controlling Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, has used his decade in power to expand surveillance, crush dissent and prioritize absolute regime security. Protests still occur regularly under his rule. But they are usually small and focused on local grievances, making them easy for authorities to quash.
Over the weekend, however, thousands of citizens took to the streets in more than a dozen cities across the country. They called primarily for pandemic restrictions to end. Yet many, on university campuses as well as in the middle of busy shopping and business districts, also voiced a more general anger over political repression. Some protesters demanded that Xi himself resign, a sentiment deemed so sensitive in China that it is seldom uttered publicly.
As dramatic as they are, the demonstrations are unlikely to threaten Xi’s grip over the Chinese Communist Party, which he consolidated and extended at a meeting of the top leadership in October.
The volatile situation, caused by one of his signature policies, is at minimum an embarrassing setback for Xi. He has consistently defended “zero covid” as “putting people first” and being the best option for China to avoid a health crisis. But the strategy, instead of garnering public support, is fast becoming a serious liability to his ambitious policy agenda. And right now it’s failing to contain the country’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began.
Here’s what you need to know about the situation — and where it might be heading.