PETER YOUNG: Rarely seen protests in communist state


Peter Young

CHINA has been much in the news recently. Public protests about the nation’s zero-COVID policy have hit the headlines, not least because in an authoritarian state dominated by the CCP - the Chinese Communist Party - such dissent, including calls for freedom and for President Xi Jinping to stand down, is unprecedented. Amidst violent clashes, there has been a massive police presence and heavy crackdown in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai and stiff penalties imposed on those concerned.

Another development attracting international media attention is the passing last week at the age of 96 of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. Unexpectedly chosen to lead the CCP after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he was judged to have been a pivotal figure during his leadership of more than a decade. China experienced a remarkable period of growth and change during his tenure as the country harnessed certain aspects of capitalism to become a global economic player – and, inevitably, comparisons are now being made with President Xi under whom the country is becoming more authoritarian and nationalistic following the recent CCP congress which saw him further cement his power.

Research shows that China was the first country to introduce COVID-19 lockdowns - in Wuhan which was supposedly the origin of the virus – nearly three years ago. But now, the rest of the world has moved on while China returns to lockdowns again and again under a continuing zero-COVID policy designed to suppress the virus entirely. But the World Health Organization says that such a policy is not sustainable. By limiting transmission, lockdowns may stop the virus in its tracks and prevent deaths in the short-term. However, less natural immunity, which comes with surviving the infection, is achieved. According to the WHO, therefore, lockdowns should not be used as a long-term solution.

The rest of the world has heeded this advice and learnt the lesson of the virus that, together with new variants that are constantly appearing and spreading quickly, it cannot be stopped. Thus the question is how to live with it. At the beginning of the pandemic it was essential to stamp down hard on the virus in order to limit its spread. Imposition of restrictions was to buy time in order to develop and roll out vaccines. With widespread vaccination programmes gradually put in place in most parts of the world - and as immunity has been gradually built up - restrictions can be eased and a return to normal life achieved.

All that sounds logical. But it is said that China stuck to its policy of suppression of the virus partly because of the weakness of its vaccination programme. This included insistence on using its own vaccines - which, according to reports, are less effective than those produced by, for example, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca – and getting them to the most vulnerable people, in particular the elderly. While other countries continue to grapple with how to live with the virus, China is now the only major world economy with a zero-COVID policy as local authorities clamp down on even small outbreaks with mass testing, quarantine and snap lockdowns.

It has become clear that dependence on lockdowns indefinitely is ineffective and unacceptable, and China is now left with a massive problem. Driven by President Xi himself and his authoritarian bureaucracy, the nation’s incessant lockdowns have reportedly had far-reaching disastrous effects. The damage they have caused is said to be incalculable and they have been described as “hellish” - sparking food shortages, crippling healthcare access, restricting domestic travel, hitting the economy hard and trapping people in their homes or forcing them into quarantine facilities.

According to reports, all this has been breeding anger in most of the country. For the past three years, the patience of a billion exhausted people has been increasingly stretched. Now, that patience has snapped, with huge numbers taking to the streets in mounting fury and demanding an end to restrictive measures. Interestingly, younger people have become involved and, for some, the demonstrations have sparked memories of Tiananmen Square when demands by students calling for more political freedom ended in a brutal crackdown, despite reports at the time that some in the CCP sympathised with their demands.

In typical fashion for authoritarian governments, a Chinese official statement blames “hostile forces” for “sabotage activity” in inciting unrest but there has apparently been little mention on state media of the protests and demonstrations. Furthermore, China continues to claim success for its own model for dealing with COVID-19 compared to what it calls the ineffectiveness of policies in Western democracies.

The consensus of international commentators is that this is a big political test for Xi as the CCP’s flawed policies have created a crisis that looks to be increasingly hard to resolve. But will his government now listen to the people and change tack? Probably not, because it might mean having to import foreign vaccines while also admitting that the country was poorly prepared for a post-COVID world.

The current protests and demonstrations in China have been the biggest since Tiananmen Square. One way out for the authorities might be to blame local officials for, in some instances, an over-zealous interpretation of CCP directives. But that might stretch credulity after Xi provoked dismay by confirming at the Party congress in October that there would be no change in his zero-COVID strategy.


ENGLAND’S BUKAYO SAKA, right, celebrates with his teammates Harry Kane, centre, and Phil Foden after scoring his side’s third goal against Senegal on Sunday. Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP


AS LONG ago as the 1970s, a noted writer and journalist of the period spoke prophetically about a world shrinking so rapidly that “between men who inhabit this earth there are no more seas; there are only rivers”.

With the much touted communications revolution of modern times, it is of course the case that the world is becoming smaller in an important sense. Its inhabitants can be in touch with one another at the click of a mouse and can speak via a video link so that, while conversing, they can simultaneously see their interlocutors onscreen. In relation to the football World Cup now taking place in Qatar, this is a further vivid reminder that the world has truly become a global village as supporters of the participating national teams have not had to travel to Qatar to watch them performing but instead can do so en masse on television in their own countries. This is, of course, nothing new since it has been possible for a number of years.

But the figures show that the current quadrennial football tournament – known as soccer in the US – that is pitting the best national teams against one another for the title of world champions is being watched by billions around the globe. It is probably the most scrutinised World Cup in the tournament’s history, with the football action and every word, gesture, celebration and outpouring of dismay following defeat magnified for a global audience.

Some say that the game, which is arguably the most popular sport covering the entire planet, is a reflection of human society itself. International sport cannot be isolated completely from the world’s problems and this time it has attracted considerable controversy that has threatened to blight the tournament because of political tensions surrounding it as the first World Cup to be staged in the Middle East. Then there has been the banning of Russia, which hosted the 2018 World Cup, from this year’s event as a result of its war against Ukraine. But sport is supposed to create healthy competition and goodwill among nations and, so far, the current World Cup has progressed without major incident.

The tournament has now reached the knockout stage of the remaining 16 countries after completion of the round robin groups. As I write this, I am more than happy to report that England has just beaten the holders of the Africa Cup of Nations, Senegal, to advance to the last eight. Lessons from the group stage are that there have been more shock results than ever before in previous World Cups which suggests a levelling-up of the quality of play as the traditionally stronger footballing countries now face a sterner challenge from those previously considered to be weaker teams. So, these days no side can be safe from an upset by lower rated teams.

While Brazil, as the world’s top-ranked footballing nation and five-time World Cup winners, remain the team to beat, never rule out the quality, strength and resilience of an England team which finished top of their group and now face world champions France in the quarter finals on Saturday. Within the shores of Britain – and surely also in France -- this could turn out to be one of the most watched football matches in history!


DURING research for today’s piece about last week’s protests and demonstrations in China against the country’s zero-Covid policies, I unearthed some interesting information about the recent history of the US’s bilateral relations with China. This is relevant because of recent developments in Taiwan; for example, the controversial visit there of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August.

This visit provoked a fierce Chinese reaction. They condemned it as interference in their internal affairs because they regard Taiwan as part of China itself and therefore see it as a breakaway province. Now, they have reacted similarly to last week’s visit to the self-governing island state by members of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee which, they claim, took place despite China’s firm opposition to it.

Since Taiwan remains such a sensitive issue in Sino-US relations, it might be worth examining in a future column the background to the US commitment to supporting it and supplying defence equipment.

This harks back to US policy after the Second World War and its backing of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek who fled to the island of Formosa – as Taiwan was then called – after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China by communist leader Mao Tse Tung in 1949. This was a time when the US was fiercely – some say hysterically – anti-Communist and when, according to some historians, the war in Korea in the 1950s provoked and provided excuses for all subsequent American policies of armed intervention and encirclement of China.

Meanwhile, it was interesting to read a recent speech by new UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in which he said that for Britain the so-called “golden era” of relations with China was over. The closer economic ties of the previous decade had been “naïve”. But he added that China’s global significance could not be ignored. “We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism.”

All this is a far cry from attitudes at the time of President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain in 2015. But it surely reflects the realities of the times.


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