Rare protests broke out across several cities in China in recent weeks. Demonstrators took to the streets to protest the government’s extreme Zero Covid policy, which imposes harsh lockdowns in an effort to stamp out the virus. In some cases, the protests took aim at the government itself, calling for Xi Jinping to step down.
Protests of this kind are extremely rare, so this movement understandably caught the attention of the world. It also apparently caught the attention of the government which has since signaled an easing of its quarantine policies.
In this episode, we speak with Kaiser Kuo, host of The Sinica Podcast, from The China Project. We spoke just hours after it was announced that former president Jiang Zemin had passed away at the age of 96. We discuss Jiang Zemin’s legacy on China today and how his death may serve as a catalyst for further protest in China. We then have an extended conversation about the rationale of Xi Jinping’s Zero Covid policy, and what may come next for this policy and the protest movement.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
Who was Jiang Zemin?
Kaiser Kuo [00:00:00] The lockdowns themselves in this particular building, in this particular area, really contributed to the inability of firefighters to get the fire under control and to save people from dying.
Excerpted News Reports [00:01:04] “The protests were triggered by a deadly fire Thursday at an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of the far western province, Xinjiang.” “A lot of the folks as well, you can see they’re holding these white pieces of paper. This is a symbol of anti-censorship.” “We don’t want any coronavirus test, this woman says. We want freedom. We have human dignity. We are human, says this man. We are Chinese. We need constitutionality.”
Kaiser Kuo [00:04:01] Jiang was picked as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party after the removal of a guy named Zhao Ziyang. Zhao had been the general secretary during the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and was removed from power during that process and spent the rest of his life in house arrest. So, Jiang was handpicked by Deng Xiaoping, who was then the paramount leader, and he really took China into a very different era, the whole post Tiananmen era, where you saw China really boom economically. So, he was in charge of things for a full decade, all the way up until 2003 when he passed the baton to Hu Jintao.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:45] And this includes milestones like China entering the World Trade Organization, right?
Kaiser Kuo [00:04:50] So, yeah, I mean, you know, he was certainly involved in architecting the formal accession to the WTO, but it didn’t happen until 2001. But yeah, absolutely, that was one of the major milestones. He also oversaw some difficulties between China and the United States, like the downing of the EP3 plane in 2001, like the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1995 and 1996.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:15] And the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as well.
Kaiser Kuo [00:05:18] That’s right.
Was Jiang Zemin a popular political figure?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:20] How is Jiang Zemin perceived popularly within China today?
Kaiser Kuo [00:05:25] Well, it’s tough. I mean, on the one extreme, there are people who actually have a positive personality cult around him. They kind of semi tongue in cheek worship, the great toad, the toad king. He has a kind of well, let’s face it, a kind of frog like or toad like appearance, you know but less ironically, I think a lot of people credit him for having really saved the Chinese Communist Party. He has this signature piece of theory called The Three Represents and most people can’t recite to you what these three represents actually are you know, they’re things like the party represents the most advanced forces of production, the party represents the most advanced cultural forces, and the party represents the overall blah blah of, you know, the Chinese people, right? So, nobody will sort of quote that to you chapter and verse but what it really means is that he brought the intellectuals and entrepreneurs into the party, and he did this in a way that really ended up saving the Chinese Communist Party. Let me put it this way. Prior to this idea, there was very little representation by leading entrepreneurs or by real intellectuals, and the party was still heavily technocratic already, but the rank-and-file party members tended to be quite low class. I remember my father used to tell me a really interesting anecdote about a company in China’s Silicon Valley in the Northwestern part and it was a company that employed, you know, 2700 people or something like that. But the only party members were a cook and a driver. So, the idea was that, you know, he wanted to bring what he would call the most advanced forces of production — that is serious engineers and scientists and people like that into the party. Jiang himself was a real technocrat. He had actually been the minister of the Ministry of Electronics, which no longer exists but at that time he was in the early 1980s.
Could Jiang Zemin’s death stoke further protests in China?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:30] So the death of Jiang Zemin at this particular moment of protest in China may potentially harken back to the death in April 1989 of former party leader Hu Yaobang. He was an outspoken reformer, and his death was the spark that led to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that year. Is there something meaningful in that comparison? And to what extent might party leadership today be worried that Jiang’s death may add fuel to these ongoing protests?
Kaiser Kuo [00:08:02] Well, they’re certainly worried, and there’s certainly people who are already going immediately for that comparison. There were calls earlier for a candlelight vigil in Shanghai in remembrance of Jiang, and Shanghai was where you had sort of the most vociferous slogans being chanted. Shanghai had, of course, really suffered badly in the spring and early summer during their lockdowns. So, there’s a lot of public anger and as far as, you know, the actual comparison between the two, Jiang was a very, very complicated guy Hu Yaobang was, too but, you know, Hu had been ridiculed prior to his death, but immediately after he died, that all dried up and went away and people sort of only remember him as sort of this martyr to reform. He had been removed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party after he failed to crack down hard enough on an earlier round of student protests that happened in 1986 and 1987. So, he was removed in 1987 as general secretary, but he kept his seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. So that meant that after his death, they were obliged to organize a formal state funeral for him. And that gave a bit of time for people to be able to ostensibly mourn his passing, you know, an act of patriotism but it was very clearly just a fig leaf for quite critical demonstration. They’re afraid of the same thing happening right now but this time they’ve seen this play run before, so they sort of know how it goes and they’re not going to allow that kind of thing to happen, to have Jiang’s death be a signal for this now. It’s interesting that they seemed to have announced it immediately after it happened. There are other times where, in sensitive moments where they fear something like this, they might have kept it under wraps for a little while before letting out the news. Funnily enough, it was just maybe ten days ago that there was another round of pretty serious rumors that Jiang had passed, and we all kind of laughed that off but now this time for real.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:02] So you’re saying that authorities are certainly prepared for protesters to potentially use the death of Jiang Zemin as a pretext for demonstrations that, while ostensibly would be mourning the death of Jiang Zemin, would really be a way to get people protesting lockdowns out on the street.
Kaiser Kuo [00:10:25] Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly right. Now, nobody really thinks of Jiang as sort of an archetype of liberal reformer. Now, he did oversee a lot of really important reforms, but they were mostly in the realm of market liberalization. He broke a lot of the eggs that needed breaking to make the modern Chinese economic omelet. He and his especially his Premier, Zhu Rongji, they oversaw a period where a lot of inefficient, state-owned enterprises were allowed to fail or were obliged to let go a large number of workers. He was sort of the time of the smashing of the iron rice bowl. He did a lot of things that were popular, like, you know, pushing the People’s Liberation Army out of the business world. You know, the PLA used to own a lot of businesses. And, you know, he sort of put an end to that. But he’s not regarded as some icon of political liberalization, although, I mean, maybe he deserves to be in some regards because he did do a lot to advance intraparty democratization and things like village elections, local elections.
What happened in the Urumqi, China fire?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:37] I’d love to have you go back and trace the source of this current protest movement. I take it it’s sort of the spark of this current protest movement was a fire in authorities handling a fire in Urumqi. Can you explain that incident and how that has led to protests throughout much of China today?
Kaiser Kuo [00:12:04] Sure. I think we need to go back a little bit further than that, just a little bit of context. You know, fires happen and sometimes they have people really, really angry but this particular fire happened in sort of a context of really, really severe lockdowns in many Chinese cities. And of course, there is the allegation, and I think pretty strong evidence to suggest that is indeed the case, that the lockdowns themselves in this particular building, in this particular area, really contributed to the inability of firefighters to get the fire under control and to save people from dying. Ten people at least died in that conflagration. But three years ago, when it broke out, China cracked down on the virus really severely. And it was, you know, feeling a little triumphalist by April or May of last year. There were a lot of photos circulating and being circulated deliberately by Chinese propaganda authorities to show, hey, look, we’ve got this thing quashed now. Zero COVID has worked. We’re throwing gigantic pool parties now. No one has to wear masks indoors. We’ve got rock festivals. You know, the bars are open; they’re going to restaurants. But when Delta and Omicron, especially the Omicron variant, hit China, although the outbreaks are really, really small, even right now, the current very large outbreaks by U.S. or other, you know, Western countries standards are very, very small. But the potential for it is huge. So, they’ve cracked down. They’ve, you know, instituted very, very strict lockdowns in many, many cities.
What is China’s Zero-Covid policy?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:37] Can I ask, what do these lockdowns look like by those who are experiencing them?
Kaiser Kuo [00:13:44] So what happens typically in, you know, a typical Chinese city is there will be a positive case. Sometimes that’s external transmission. Somebody came back and somehow, after many days in quarantine, they didn’t have symptoms or they didn’t, you know, show positive. And then there’s a transmission or sometimes it’s a false positive. So, what happens is they will lock down either a building itself or sometimes an entire compound. Often, apartment buildings are part of big blocks of, you know, multiple buildings. And so, they’ll lock down that whole neighborhood or adjoining buildings or adjacent buildings or even buildings just, you know, a block away. And they will, you know, in some severe cases, put chains on doors or actually weld gates shuts or limit the number of egress or entry points to a compound or to a building. They try their level best, I suppose. I mean, we can take this on good faith that they ensure that people are delivered food and other necessities, but no one comes in and out of the buildings except with special permissions.
Why are there protests in China right now?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:52] So if this has been more or less the standard procedure for many, many months now, why is it that protests have suddenly erupted?
Kaiser Kuo [00:15:04] Well, two things. One, that you mentioned, the Urumqi fire is certainly one of them, but the other is the Foxconn demonstrations in Changzhou in Hunan, where there’s an enormous Foxconn plant that employs hundreds of thousands of people.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:18] And this is a company known mostly for making iPhones.
Kaiser Kuo [00:15:23] I mean, they’re a contract electronics manufacturer, the biggest in the world. They’re actually a Taiwanese owned company, and they do, yeah, most famously, Apple products. They’re an extraordinarily sophisticated operation, obviously, and their Changzhou operation, Hunan is the central Chinese province in sort of north central China, a huge city, huge population, and population in that province the size of Germany. It’s only the size of the state of Missouri so it’s quite small. My ancestral province, in fact.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:52] Mine is Ukraine.
Kaiser Kuo [00:15:55] Yours, I’m sure, was Ukraine at one point, Lithuania, maybe Poland.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:59] Bessarabia, it was called.
Kaiser Kuo [00:16:01] Bessarabia. Yeah, you know, that’s kind of standard Ashkenazi history, right?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:05] Precisely.
Kaiser Kuo [00:16:07] So this was really widely publicized where because lockdowns had been announced, a lot of workers panicked because there were some cases there and either they wanted to escape lockdown, or they wanted to avoid infection. It was different when you talk to different, you know, workers who fled, but they got out and they walked, you know, in some cases, many dozens or even hundreds of miles or they set out to walk those distances to get home. And so, there’s a lot of really, you know, fascinating footage of people just pushing their way past guards, walking down these freeways. It’s kind of nuts. So, there was a lot of sort of solidarity with them. The Urumqi Fire: when these images of these impotent fire trucks trying to blast water from quite far away because there were cars blocking their access to the actual building; cars that couldn’t be moved because their owners had either left town or were in lockdown. You know, anger really bubbled up. So, there was a lot of pent-up frustration over all this time in lockdown, a lot of, you know, mental health crises, people who had other health issues that couldn’t be addressed in local hospitals because they couldn’t leave their buildings easily. There’s a lot of economic pain as well. People who can’t simply work from home and who had lost their jobs or hadn’t been paid for months. So, I think it’s quite understandable how frustrated people were.
Why are there anti-government protests in China?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:33] So the protests that have erupted from this I’ve seen alternatively described at least in Western media, as anti-lockdown protests, but sometimes also anti-government protests, and presumably there’s some overlap between the two. How would you characterize the protests based on what you’re seeing, your own reporting, your own sort of analysis of the situation?
Kaiser Kuo [00:18:01] So there have been protests now in many, many cities and even some very small communities, and some of them are quite localized, some of them are just limited to one, say, neighborhood that’s been locked down. For example, there’s an enormous housing complex called Tiantongyuan in the north part of Beijing. I mean, there are probably a million people who live just in that one compound, and they had a fairly localized protest that focused just on lockdown restrictions, and they actually won; their restrictions were lifted. Others have been very overtly political and bigger. What’s interesting is that mostly I would say they’re local in their scope, but the issues that concern them are ones that are felt pretty uniformly across the country, you know, more severe in some places where lockdowns have been bad, where there have been bad outbreaks, and where management of the lockdowns themselves have been poor. But what’s interesting is that they’re happening simultaneously or that they happened. So, let’s just be clear. By today, they almost entirely petered out. And in fact, by Monday night they had pretty much petered out. So, it’s maybe not correct to speak of ongoing protests, but we’ll see. I mean, they still might flare up. Who really knows? In any case, they’re not by any means, all overtly political. There’s only one city that I’m aware of right now where the chants were things — there’s some debate over how it’s translated — but literally in Chinese it means Xi Jinping get off the stage like I mean, down with Xi Jinping, or it can be like we’re calling you to step down and the Communist Party get off the stage or down with the Communist Party.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:49] The message is clear.
Kaiser Kuo [00:19:50] Yeah. So that’s only one city that’s in Shanghai. So, Shanghai’s obviously a very important city. It’s the most economically important city in China. So again, it’s quite diverse in size and scale in the kinds of demands they’re talking about in their scope. Very, very diverse.
How does the Chinese government suppress protest movements?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:09] Have the protests petered out precisely because the authorities are so good at suppressing dissent at this point? You know, the much-vaunted electronic surveillance systems, are they able to, like, track down the protesters using their facial recognition technology and so on, in order to prevent these protesters from returning to the streets?
Kaiser Kuo [00:20:35] That’s certainly part of it. I think it’s really hard to say really accurately, because, again, there are so many people protesting for different motives and not protesting for different reasons. I’d say that part of it is, as some guests that I spoke to who lived in Beijing and have been there for a very, very long time, have said, is that part of it is that people just wanted to sort of blow off steam and they’ve done that so there’s maybe not as much steam. They’ve, you know, opened the pressure cooker, and let it all out. So, it may take time to build up again. Maybe it won’t. But there are other people who would say that no it’s because the police presence has been really, really huge. One of my guests, he said basically they’ve gone to DEFCON f around and find out, which I thought was a really clever turn of phrase. And then part of it, I think, also is just the weather. I mean, in especially the northern cities there was a gigantic cold snap so that it was like with windchill minus ten or even colder on Tuesday.
Why is China continuing it’s Zero-Covid policy despite protests?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:37] So Xi Jinping is paying a decent, it seems, political and economic cost for the Zero-Covid policy. What do you suppose drives his dedication to that rather extreme policy at this point?
Kaiser Kuo [00:21:56] Yeah, I think it’s pretty simple. I mean, I think they do a lot of modeling there. There have been a lot of models that have been done, including one that was just published earlier this week in Nature Medicine — this was done in May so conditions may have changed between then and now — but as of May, had they allowed basically COVID to run, you know, if they had stopped the Zero-Covid policy, it would result in an estimated 1.5 million deaths, 77% of which would have been among people 60 and older who are unvaccinated. So, they’re also aware that vaccination rates have been quite low among the elderly, and there’s all sorts of reasons for vaccine hesitancy, but they’re looking at an immunologically naive population and a very big, very dense one. They saw what happened in Taiwan when Taiwan let go, when they saw 48,000 cases a day and had numerous deaths. So, they project from that, and they think, you know, the same people who are criticizing us right now for this strict crackdown, they’re going to turn around and they’re going to say, hey, we are a country that, as you always remind us, you know, cherishes the young and respects the aged, where’s your respect for the aged now, you’re letting them all die. So, you know, they feel like they can’t really win. And I think that, you know, there’s an old, stupid saying, they always say oh out in Asia, life is cheap. That’s clearly not the case.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:20] I’ve never heard that.
How many people in China have died of Covid?
Kaiser Kuo [00:23:22] They care very much about deaths. They do not want to see anything like that, especially when one of their big talking points in the last few years has been this million plus deaths in the United States and they can point right now and honestly say they’ve kept deaths to about 5000 in a country of 1.4 billion.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:44] I saw a statistic that something like 20% of Chinese are over the age of 60. Basically, you know, what you’re seeing is that the political price and the economic impact of the zero-lockdown policy is something that Xi and party leaders are willing to tolerate because they think that loosening restrictions would cause an even greater political headache and they would pay a steep price for large number of elderly Chinese dying.
Kaiser Kuo [00:24:16] That’s exactly right. There’s a sort of grand utilitarian calculation there. They are making, you know, some hundred million people grumble really, really unhappily but meanwhile, there are, you know, another 1.3 billion in the surrounding area in China, right? The rest of the country is perfectly happy to be able to lead relatively normal lives. Now, that 100 million happens to be a very important piece. And let me just say, I mean, they’re constantly updating this. They’re not locked into one set of policies. Already, we’ve seen the Chinese Centers for Disease Control issue new guidelines. Let’s remember also that the first week of November, right after the party Congress, they released this 20-point set of guidelines. There were many points in there that had to do with, you know, loosening. In fact, there’s been some theorizing that says that in that very act of showing a little bit of softening, that maybe emboldened critics, this is something that China always fears. They think that this is the pattern. If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile, that kind of thing.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:17] And so it was that softening that also inspired people to come out into the streets thinking that maybe an even deeper softening is possible.
Kaiser Kuo [00:25:27] I don’t know whether that’s really the case. I’m saying that there are people who think that it might be. I don’t think there’s any easy way to sort of empirically establish whether that is in fact the case.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:37] So how sustainable is the Zero-Covid policy? You know, assuming that protests do sort of peter out as they seem to have been, how sustainable is this zero-covid policy?
Kaiser Kuo [00:25:51] Well, I think that they’d be foolish if they didn’t realize that it’s not very sustainable in the long run. They’ve painted themselves into a corner. I mean, they’re victims from their early successes, right? I don’t know what they thought was going to happen, to imagine that COVID was just going to go away in the rest of the world and that they would be able to, you know, like reopen without the threat of COVID. Clearly, they did not use that vaunted state capacity for what they should have used it for, which is, you know, really getting a lot of shots in a lot of arms, especially among the vulnerable elderly population. Now, there’s a big plan to do that, and we all anticipated that that was going to be announced after the party Congress, that that was part of the reopening plan, that they would have to really start using that coercive capacity to immunize people.
Why are women taking the lead on recent lockdown protests in China?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:36] So there is this kind of rich tradition of Chinese online activism that skirts censorship through clever means. And I guess what’s significant to me as an outsider looking in is that, you know, these protests that we saw over the last week or so seem to be like a physical manifestation of the sort of online protest universe in an interesting way.
Kaiser Kuo [00:27:05] Absolutely. This is true O to O, online to offline, as they say in China. They were using many of the same kind of memes and techniques that they would have used in the online world. Of course, a lot of it was organized online so yeah, the same kind of snarky cleverness and like weaponized passive aggression and which is just, you know, something that must never be underestimated. The other thing I would say about the protests and people have remarked on this, I think it’s really interesting is how many women are not only taking part in, but leading the protests and leading, you know, conversations about this, not only offline but online as well. And people have wondered why that is. I have a couple of explanations for it. One is just that during these years, I mean, China did enjoy a couple of years where its lockdowns were much less severe than in the rest of the world but let’s not forget that there was still a lot of restriction and, you know, online education was the norm in China for a very long time, even after the rest of society had opened up. So that put a lot of burden, of course, on women who were the primary caretakers of school age children. There were during the lockdowns themselves, you know, spikes, as there have been in the United States, in other countries of spousal abuse, of domestic violence. Women have had to bear a lot of the brunt of this. They were often in the jobs that were deemed nonessential, unfortunately, and so they lost jobs when they were under more economic duress than many of the men in the country. So that’s one reason. The other, I would say, is that across these decades of relative, you know, political quiescence in China, one area where we have seen really bold activism is in feminist causes, whether it’s, you know, MeToo stuff or domestic violence or in gender equality issues, more generally about pay and other things. We’ve seen women really, really show an admirable bravery in confronting political authority. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re out in front in this as well.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:16] Lastly, in the coming weeks, is there anything you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not these protests might revive or indeed if they have petered out?
Kaiser Kuo [00:29:27] Yeah. I mean, you know, the obvious thing is just simply watching whether there are, you know, further instances, seeing if this trickles down into lower tier cities, seeing where the protest organizers now direct their energies. It’s hard to identify who they are and, of course, you know, in doing so, you may be putting them in danger. But I’m just going to continue, as I have been doing, to watch Chinese social media and, you know, even looking for specific lacunae, because it’s often those dogs that are forced not to bark that sort of give you clues about what’s actually happening. So, looking at where the censorious efforts of authorities are placed.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:08] Well, Kaiser, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Kaiser Kuo [00:30:11] Thanks so much, Mark. It’s been a real pleasure.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:20] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.