Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: China’s protests diminish Xi Jinping’s authority

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: China’s protests diminish Xi Jinping’s authority

Protests in China are unlikely to lead to regime change, but it has dented the authority of the President

Barely a month after granting himself new powers as China's potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger of the kind not seen for decades, sparked by his Covid-19 strategy that will soon enter its fourth year. (AP Photo)

It is a cliché about protests in authoritarian societies that they appear unlikely ex ante, inevitable in retrospect, and uncertain in the train of events they unleash. But, based on preliminary assessment, the widespread protests against China’s Covid policy are unprecedented and will test President Xi Jinping’s authority. In all likelihood, the protests will be quelled with a combination of repression and some concessions. But in significant ways these protests have already challenged the authority of Xi.

Protests in China are not new. For years, the Chinese state used protests as a safety valve and an information conduit, a way of identifying fault lines in society and responding to them. Most of those protests did not dent the authority of the Communist Party. They were used to strengthen it. But that strategy had four assumptions.

First, the issues taken up in the protest were usually very specific. Second, they worked in a system of relative decentralisation, where the protests could be taken as an indicator of local performance, while the central leadership could step in as a knight in shining armour. So, traditionally, in surveys, distrust of local government was always much higher than central government. Third, the protest was used as information. But the guiding assumption was that the central leadership had some kind of knowledge authority that was in a position to correct errors. And the fourth, was the ability to control the information order enough to stop any possible contagion effects.
All four assumptions are being tested in these protests. The first is harder to gauge. The protests are ostensibly against Covid policies. In some places they are becoming a magnet for other grievances including labour rights and curbs on freedom. But we have to be very cautious in assessing the scale and grammar of these protests. But the fact that China has become more centralised is a problem for Xi. Though local governments institute region-specific policies, there is no doubt that the failures of Covid policy will be attributed entirely to the central government. The spectacle of Xi’s politburo being entirely constituted by “yes men” also suggests that channelling up discontent through party channels is no longer considered an easy option. Ironically, the successful consolidation of power at the top takes away the possibility of engaging with alternative viewpoints within the system. Perhaps the people are willing to see this.