Situation in China volatile—A fire incident, a strict Covid policy spreading anger on streets

    Protests across China over Beijing’s zero-Covid policy. Ten people die in Urumqi residential building fire, sparking outrage. While India was not invited to the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum, Australia was present. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan suffers a setback in the local election, President Tsai Ing-wen steps down as party chief. Chinascope tells the story of protests across China and makes sense of the growing public anger.

    China over the week

    Two incidents stemming from Beijing’s zero-Covid policy have sparked protests in major urban areas across China. Almost a yearlong frustration with the policy, especially the health code system and the almost arbitrary quarantine, is coming to a head as people vent their frustration.

    The situation in China is volatile.

    In the past week, small — and some large-scale — protests against the Covid policies were seen in Zhengzhou, Urumqi, Haizhu, Xi’an, Nanjing, Beijing, Lanzhou, Changsha, and Korla. The first spark started at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. 

    The workers at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou complained that they were made to share dormitories with other workers who had tested positive for Covid. Apple’s production line has already been suffering due to severe delays owing to labour shortages and Covid protocols.  

    Apart from the working conditions the workers complained about cuts to employee benefits by Foxconn.

    When the workers gathered to protest, the police dressed in hazmat suits attacked them, leading to clashes. The author has confirmed that videos of the clash have circulated on Twitter and were shared in closed chat groups within China. Although Twitter is banned, people do sign up for an account using VPN.

    But what catapulted the anger among the Chinese public – now visible across cities – was the Urumqi incident in which 10 people died.

    On Thursday at 7:49 pm, a fire broke out at a residential building in the Tian Shan district of Urumqi while people were trapped inside the building because of Covid restrictions. They couldn’t escape. As the fire spread, screams of residents begging for help were captured on camera

    The outrage over the fire-related deaths was so intense that the residents of Urumqi and some other cities in Xinjiang came out to protest despite being under mass-scale surveillance. The gory video of people screaming spread like wildfire on WeChat, and the videos were even available on Weibo before being censored. 

    Fearing further backlash following the Urumqi protest, the local government announced that the city would ease the lockdown. The deaths were linked to restrictions imposed on residents because of the stringent zero-Covid policy in Urumqi. The residents failed to escape.

    The hashtag “10 deaths in Xinjiang because of fire at a high-rise building” was viewed 2.76 billion times on Weibo. Despite receiving over 2 billion views, the trend wasn’t in the top 20 list, suggesting that Chinese internet censors tried to limit the hashtag. 

    “From the reaction of the vast majority of students around me, there was a great deal of anger, especially knowing they could not escape from the fire because they were locked. Many students were sharing articles about it (although many of them were deleted later) to show their support for Urumqi and their sadness that such a thing happened,” a Chinese citizen told this author during an interview. 

    Also read: Xi’s promotion of technocrats has two goals—compete with US, reduce challenge to his power

    On Saturday, the outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the Urumqi was most vivid in Shanghai, where about 1,000 people gathered and shouted slogans against the Chinese Communist Party. The protesters gathered at the Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai.

    The protest went on well into midnight, and people left the site close to 3 am on Sunday. People were seen with flowers in their hands and regrouped late on Sunday to continue the protest. They sang the Chinese national anthem protesting the Covid restriction, “stand up, people who do not want to be slaves.”

    The Shanghai protest was largely peaceful as the police stood by without immediately detaining the protestors. “We don’t want dictatorship, we want democracy,” said people at a vigil for the Urumqi victims. “CCP steps down, Xi Jinping step down”, shouted protesters who had gathered in Shanghai.

    It wasn’t long before people began to draw parallels between the recent protests and the 1989 Tiananmen Square agitation

    Though there were student-led protests at the Communication University of China in Nanjing, Peking University in Beijing, and the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, there wasn’t a core student group leading the protest like in the case of Tiananmen Square protest. Surprisingly, students at the elite Tsinghua University, which has produced generations of Chinese politicians, protested almost-arbitrary detention under the Covid controls. There is a possibility the students may play a more active role in the protests in the week ahead. 

    To avoid irking the police, the protesters carried a blank piece of paper, a strategy also seen during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protest. But the situation will be highly critical over the next week and has the potential of continued small-scale unrest in major cities. 

    “If mishandled by the government, the highly volatile situation could quickly evolve into the most severe political crisis since Tiananmen,” Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations told The Wall Street Journal.

    Other commentators have called the protests in the past three days ‘novel’. 

    “What’s happened in the past 24 hours is novel in that protesters have appeared on the streets in multiple cities with apparent knowledge of what is happening in other parts of the country. They’re all mobilising around Covid, but this is refracted through distinct lenses,” wrote William Hurst, professor at the development studies department at Cambridge University. 

    Twitter has become the primary source for sharing the latest videos of the protest. There is currently an info-op, likely by Beijing, to distract people from sharing protest videos. Thousands of bots tweeting in Mandarin Chinese shared escort ads, a distraction strategy.

    Beijing’s Covid policy is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Despite the severe anger, People’s Daily continued to defend the policy in the Sunday edition. 

    The recently exacerbated mismanagement of the Covid response can be explained by the disconnect between Beijing’s guidelines and how localities across China are implementing them. “For example, the central government cancelled covid testing for Shijiazhuang, but this led to the exclusion of these people in other areas. Outside the city, the people of Shijiazhuang are like rats crossing the streets,” a Chinese citizen told the author. 

    The protests on the mainland might have dominated the news, but a major local election in Taiwan surprised many who watched the Island nation’s politics. The Democratic Progressive Party lost ground to Kuomintang Party in the mid-term elections for mayor. Accepting the dismal performance of her party, President Tsai Ing-wen announced that she was stepping down from the post of party chief.

    Chiang Kai-shek’s great-grandson Chiang Wan-an defeated DPP’s former minister of health and welfare, Chen Shih-chung. Chiang is now set to become the youngest mayor of Taipei and is widely seen as a young and charismatic candidate. 

    A Taiwanese observer told the author that the DPP’s defeat could be attributed to public perception about the candidates the party fielded, the response to the pandemic, and some other local issues. Though DPP’s defeat may appear like a seismic shift in Taiwanese politics, the local elections in Taiwan do not have an impact on the relations with China and tensions with Beijing didn’t become the deciding factor, according to multiple observers.

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    China in world news

    Nothing else can illustrate the meaning of President Xi’s ‘Asia for Asians’ message than leaving India out of the Beijing-led China-Indian Ocean Region Forum. The China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) held a meeting of the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum in Kunming, attended by 19 countries, including Australia. 

    The CIDCA is currently headed by the former Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui. 

    The Indian Ocean is one of the regions in the world with the most promising potential for development, and African countries are an important part of it with full vitality. China and Africa enjoy a time-honoured friendship. China has become the most important partner in development and cooperation for most African countries” said Director-General Wu Peng, Department of African Affairs of Foreign Ministry, during the forum.

    The countries that participated in the forum include Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Oman, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Djibouti, and Australia

    India wasn’t invited to the forum, reported NDTV. India’s exclusion from the forum sits at the contention between the two Asian giants over who gets to project power in the Indian Ocean. If the sea is a zone of contention between India and China, then the infrastructure construction in the Himalayas is the hotbed of tensions. 

    India is now speeding up a road construction project which will connect vital strategic parts of Arunachal Pradesh, ThePrint’s Snehesh Alex Philip has reported

    “The project, which was objected to by China in the past, is a 2,000-km-long road that follows the McMahon Line. The road will begin from Mago in Arunachal Pradesh, adjacent to Bhutan, and pass through Tawang, Upper Subansiri, Tuting, Mechuka, Upper Siang, Debang Valley, Desali, Chaglagam, Kibithu, Dong, before ending at Vijayanagar near the Myanmar border,” says ThePrint report. 

    China has ramped up its construction of a strategic highway near Arunachal Pradesh. A 67 km strategic highway connecting Nyingchi to Medog in Tibet has now been completed. Meanwhile, India and the US Army are conducting the annual Yudh Abhyas exercise in Uttarkhand’s Auli, just about 100 km away from the Line of Actual Control. 

    Must read this week

    China Is Investing Billions in Pakistan. Its Workers There Are Under Attack – Saeed Shah and Chun Han Wong

    Xi Jinping and the Paradox of Power – Minxin Pei

    What is it about the nature of the India-China conflict that defies resolution? – Sonia Trikha Shukla 

    China’s Covid Controls Hurt Its Push for More Weddings – Liyan Qi 

    China Security Report 2022 – National Institute for Defence Studies (Japan)

    The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

    (Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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