The protests in China against the government’s draconian Covid controls have been compared to those in 1989, when students demonstrated for political reforms and democracy. The 1989 pro-democracy movement occurred in the most liberal, tolerant and enlightening period in the history of the People’s Republic of China, and the regime opened fire in Tiananmen Square — after the ouster of the liberal leader, Zhao Ziyang — because it had run out of every other control tool in its possession. This is called the Tocqueville paradox: An autocracy is most vulnerable when it is least autocratic.
But a closer analogy is April 5, 1976. On that day and the days before, protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square, demonstrating against the tyrannical rule, deteriorating economic conditions and political persecutions by the Gang of Four and, by implication, its patron, Mao Zedong. That was a movement born out of grievances, not aspirations.
The Covid protests are occurring at the height of China’s autocratic moment. While there are calls forfree speech and elections, the rallying cry since Sunday has been against a jarring oppression: the incarceration of hundreds of millions of people in their homes and in field hospitals. Autocracies — whether in China or elsewhere — are oppressive, but has another autocratic regime ever taken away the rights of so many people to lead a normal life?
Politically, Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has violated a time-tested technique his predecessors used to defuse social tensions: divide and conquer. After 1989, mostof the Chinese protests were localized and issue-specific. Rural residents lost their land, but urbanites were showered with benefits. State workers lost their jobs, but private entrepreneurs were wooed to open businesses.
The benefits and losses evened out in the end. Different people harbored different grievances, and their grievances were not synchronized. Not only did the Communist Party survive those scattered protests; it grew and prospered. Today the party has some 96 million members. If it were a country, it would be the world’s 16th largest.
Now consider China’s zero-Covid policy. Its lockdowns put nearly everybody in exactly the same situation, and according to one estimate, almost 400 million people were put under some sort of lockdown in 2022. The affluent Shanghainese have very little in common with people in Urumqi in Xinjiang. Yet when 10 people died in a fire in a high rise in Urumqi, with building doors allegedly locked because of Covid restrictions, empathy, a crucial ingredient in collective actions, arose among Shanghainese who inhabit similar high rises. Never, not even in 1989, had a Chinese regime confronted protests in many cities at the same time.
Mr. Xi’s autocratic style has undermined the institutional interests of the Chinese Communist Party. After Tiananmen Square, Chinese leaders came up with a successful formula to preserve one-party rule while delivering growth, engineering innovations and seeding entrepreneurial success. That formula required loyalty from the Chinese citizens, but it also gave them space.
Young people could go to karaoke and rock ’n’ roll concerts and worship whichever K-pop stars they fancied. Intellectuals could vent their anger and frustration on China’s vibrant social media. And entrepreneurs were so busy making money that they could not even spell the word “politics.” This social contract, in which the Communist Party would observe certain boundaries in exchange for society observing its own, was instrumental in bringing China from the brink of disaster of the Tiananmen crisis and contributed to economic growth and prosperity. Whether we in the West like it or not, opinion surveysduring those years showed that young people in China were more supportive of the government’s nationalistic policy agenda than older residents.
Mr. Xi broke that social contract. As early as 2013, his government began to channel bank credits to chronically inefficient state-owned enterprises, at the expense of the private sector. Then his government began to crack down on nongovernmental organizations such as feminist groups and on lawyers who helped rural migrant workers negotiate better wage contracts. Even environmentalists were not spared, despite the fact that one of Mr. Xi’s policy priorities was to combat China’s pollution. Censorship was tightened significantly on social media and at Chinese universities. In 2020 and 2021, his government began to target — through fines and regulatory restrictions — China’s crown jewels of technology and entrepreneurship, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and many others.
The crackdown on big tech was counterproductive. China’s private sector generated the tax revenues and appreciations of land assets that have underwritten the Communist Party and its many costly operations, including, yes, its mandatory coronavirus tests. China’s high-tech companies contributed critically to its early success in containing the virus by rolling out health codes at record speed. They also created millions of jobs for China’s young people, and the entrepreneurs who ran those companies became role models for the ambitious Chinese to go into entrepreneurship rather than agonize over human rights and free speech. The Communist Party had the best of both worlds: a private sector that increased the G.D.P. and, as academic research has shown, did not demand political openness.
Zero Covid is another example of a self-inflicted wound. In 2020, Mr. Xi’s government scored an early victory by locking down the city of Wuhan and quickly flattening the infection curve. Instead of using the window of opportunity in 2021 and 2022 to vaccinate its population with all available vaccines, including ones by Pfizer and Moderna, the Chinese government doubled down on the zero-Covid policy against the highly transmissible Omicron variant. It was an effort doomed to failure because it is like “trying to stop the wind,” as Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist put it.
Mr. Xi’s decision spoke of hubris of the highest degree — a leader staking his reputation on a mission impossible. While the lockdowns brought untold misery, Covid infections rose to a record high, to around 30,000 a day in a recent count. He overpromised and, predictably, underdelivered.
Inadvertently, Mr. Xi has lowered the bar for democracy. When students were holding up blank pieces of paper at protests, they were not thinking of defending the rights of those voicing unpopular, contrary views. They were defending their right to be human — the right to take a walk in the park, to cross the street to get lunch or to visit friends to play a game together.
Chinese citizens just want their lives back, an argument John Stuart Mill never thought of as a defense of free speech. If that is the battleground on which debate on democracy and autocracy is waged, democracy wins every time, and we have Mr. Xi to thank for it.
Yasheng Huang is a professor of global economics and management at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and the author of the forthcoming book “The Rise and the Fall of the EAST: Examination, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology in Chinese History and Today.”
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