The past two months have confronted Xi Jinping – the paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China – with a set of challenges perhaps completely unprecedented in the 21st Century. The amalgamation of multiple factors such as “saving face”, hyper-nationalism, and a need for absolute control, the continuation of the Zero COVID policy has now spurred protests on an unparalleled scale.
Such is the scale of protests that even the mighty 200 billion USD/year internal security apparatus of China has failed to stem them. These developments, and the response to them, present a change – though perhaps not entirely a paradigm shift – have multiple consequences, which this column will try to shed light on.
The first important idea of note is the fact that Chinese indoctrination, education, and propaganda policy may have arrived at an inflection point. The past ten years of the Xi Jinping rule have been characterised with an ever-strengthening grip on education, social media, news, ideological positioning, and personal freedom. Even the most draconian manifestation of this principle under the Zero COVID policy has failed to stem demonstrations.
There remains perhaps no room towards exerting further political control given the change experienced over the past ten years and especially the past two years. It is analogous to a car which has run out of gears: there remain no further means to control the Chinese people even further. This implies one (or both) of two things: (a) China may trend towards the relaxation of its controls, or (b) China may encroach further into the economy and exert financial control.
Both of these come with significant long-term costs to the CCP regime, with the former threatening the magnitude of control of the CCP, and the latter threatening the economy of China and thus the Chinese version of The Social Contract: economic prosperity in exchange for freedoms. The former under Xi Jinping remains particularly unlikely, as his power has largely been consolidated barring a small faction under the control of former paramount leader, Jiang Zemin.
Inklings of both ideas have been seen with the appeasement of protestors with the rollback of some measures of the zero COVID policy, as well as the return of Maoist era Communes with state-run canteens and stores, but whether these protests have ultimately altered the trajectory of Xi’s plans remains to be seen.