Despite the ironclad authoritarian rule of the Communist Party of China led by President Xi Jinping, rifts between Beijing and the public appear to be deepening with the rising number of demonstrations and strong government response in key population centers in China.
According to data collected by Hindustan Times from open sources, no fewer than 430 civilian demonstrations have taken place since January 2022, sparking some 120 strong authoritarian responses from the Xi Jinping regime. The main trigger for the protests was the brutal enforcement of Covid lockdowns in high-density areas, leading to delays in wage payments, scarcity of everyday goods and apparent apathy on the part of local governments. The cities that have been vulnerable to such protests include Shanghai, Shandong, Beijing, Hong Kong and Anhui.
While such protests in democracies like India, US, UK and Europe are considered normal, public reaction in the Chinese hinterland has been quite unheard of as the CPC handles dissent with an iron hand. This growing anti-establishment sentiment in flash zones is a concern for Beijing, as President Xi will be re-elected as the eternal leader for the third term in October-November.
China has witnessed an increase in citizen protests and subsequent crackdowns by authorities in the most vulnerable areas since January 2022, indicating a growing anti-establishment sentiment in these flash zones. In some places, the protests escalated into violent riots that prompted a coercive response from the government, fueling a vicious circle of violence and dissent.
In Shanghai, the state’s violent response to civilian demonstrations against prolonged lockdown sparked riots. While the capital Beijing reported on the enforced disappearance of protesters in the wake of peace protests, Hong Kong – the semi-autonomous region that has implemented the draconian national security law – witnessed a clampdown on public services and intimidation of protesters by local law enforcement officers such as response to the protests.
At least six municipal districts in Shanghai have reported violent crackdowns by the government or clashes between civilians and police. Dozens of rioters clashed with police on May 3, 2022, in Jinze municipality in Qingpu district, as they tried to avoid the arrest of a man who accused a supermarket of selling pork donated by another province during the Covid -lockdown. The rioters were frustrated by claims that the supermarket was making a profit from food donations, especially at a time when they were struggling to get affordable food.
In the Songjiang district, more than 100 workers at an Apple-owned industrial company in Taiwan threw rocks at their Taiwanese manager’s dormitory against their incarceration and overtime during the lockdown. They were reportedly frustrated with inadequate pandemic prevention measures that led some workers to test positive for Covid.
The authoritarian response to minor violations during the lockdown was seen in Pudong district, where epidemic prevention staff beat up a professor outside his residential building for leaving home to have food delivered. The man suffered a concussion and eye injury after the assault.
Daily wage workers, factory workers and other industry unions mobilized in Shandong province over arrears and payroll taxes. The government’s response ranged from violent intimidation to detention of protesters. In April-May, a large group of construction workers who protested were violently intimidated by the state-owned company to call off the demonstrations. In the Laishan district, teachers protesting in the Yantai Development Zone Senior High School were detained by the local authorities they resorted to, leading to more demonstrations.
Reports of enforced disappearances of civilians in response to peaceful protests in Beijing show growing unrest. Last month, a Sichuan petitioner was held in incommunicado detention by police in an unknown location after the petitioner was transferred to the police station in Fengtai District, a Beijing municipality. Government officials intercepted a female human rights defender from Suzhou as she boarded a train in Beijing on July 20, 2022.
The semi-autonomous region saw the most number of peaceful protests and measures. Hong Kong authorities have responded to protests with strategic regulations, including house searches and arrests of protesters, regulating access to public areas, terminating railway services and diverting public bus services. Within seven weeks, at least 13 incidents were reported, with the city of Hong Kong and central and western Hong Kong being the center of coercive measures.
A crowdfunded investigative news platform, Factwire, announced its immediate disbandment for unclear reasons. This was followed by the dissolution of a pro-democracy medical alliance, The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), due to “pressure from all sides and the current political stalemate.” HAEA became one of at least 58 civilian groups disbanded since the passing of the National Security Act. On June 26, Hong Kong police arrested three people in separate cases for possessing offensive weapons and making threats against government officials or selling weapons for illegal assembly.