Since Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago, China’s Communist party has enacted a sweeping crackdown on civil society. Independent NGOs have been shut down, journalists and human rights lawyers arrested and outspoken media tamed. Meanwhile, the government has invested heavily in a massive surveillance system to keep track of citizens’ movements and activities.
Given their emphasis on national security and stability, party leaders would have been shocked therefore by the nationwide protests that broke out on 26 November in opposition to Xi’s “zero-Covid” policy. Demonstrators demanded an end to lockdowns and mass testing and some even called for the removal of the party and Xi himself.
The government’s response was two-pronged: lockdowns were lifted in many places and other Covid restrictions eased at the same time as a national police operation was launched to detain protesters and tech companies were instructed to expand censorship of protests and curb access to virtual private networks. The party also said the protests were being backed by “hostile forces” – an official designation that allows security forces to respond with more severe measures.
Some China observers predict that in the medium term the government will respond to the largest mainland protests in decades by cracking down even harder on civil society.
“The authorities will step up control,” said Chen Daoyin, a political scientist formerly with the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “The authorities will see this as the bud of a colour revolution and will deal with it as such.”
Prof William Hurst, deputy director at the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge, said the government’s approach would be to increase repression slightly in order to make protesters’ aware of the risk and cost of their actions.
“What the Chinese government has learned from [the crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement] 33 years ago is that sharp and brutal repression is not so effective and is also extremely risky for the regime,” he said. “But by very slowly turning up that crank of repression so that there is no clear moment when they turned from permissive to repressive, that can be more effective.”
Some other China experts say the government’s response should be seen in the context of what they see as the country’s reversion to totalitarianism from a form of authoritarianism.
Prof Xu Chenggang, an economist and senior research fellow at the Stanford Centre on China’s Economy and Institutions, said the zero-Covid policy was of a piece with the Communist party’s attempt to assume total control of the populace.
“What we are seeing now is a comprehensive shift from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. The party is resuming control of all aspects of society,” Xu said.
Xu said another sign of the shift is the recent resurgence of thousands of state-run cooperatives and public canteens, which have revived grim memories of food rationing and starvation under a planned economy.
In Xu’s reading, the era of economic and political liberalisation from 1978, in which the Mao-era totalitarian system morphed into a form of authoritarianism, was only an interim means-to-an-end strategy aimed at rescuing the economy that was on the brink of collapse after the Cultural Revolution.
“The Chinese Communist party has always relied on terror to rule,” Xu said. “For the future, it will definitely continue to shift towards totalitarianism, this is for sure.”
Other signs of attempts by the party to increase control include the recent tightening of the government’s grip on industries that have a large influence in public life and are perceived as a potential threat to its rule, such as tech and entertainment.
This has taken the form of a crackdown on Alibaba and Tencent over regulatory issues, the implementation of “mixed ownership” – reform in which state-owned enterprises take stakes in private companies, and the mandating of Communist party cells in private companies. The authorities have also cracked down on celebrities and the entertainment business, mostly over tax issues.
Chen says Xi is guided by a Marxist view of history and sees it as his mission to put China back on the rightful course of history in its progress towards socialism and communism.
Xi believes that capitalism is a transitional phase before society can progress to socialism and communism, Chen said. Like many other members of the political elite, he believes Mao’s attempt to impose rapid collectivisation and nationalisation in the Great Leap Forward movement from 1958 failed because he skipped the capitalism phase in the party’s original plan for a decade-long transitional period towards socialism.
According to this line of thinking, China’s four-decade economic reform has laid the material foundation to enable it to progress to communism. Xi has repeatedly urged his cadres to “return to our original vision” since taking power in 2012.
“It is filling Mao’s old bottle with new wine,” Chen said. “We are now in a new historical stage and have the material foundation to revive the old [Communist movement].”
Jean-Philippe Béja, a research emeritus professor at Sciences Po in Paris, said the recent protests show that “history always comes to disrupt perfect control” and that there is “no perfect totalitarianism”.
Now that many ordinary people have overcome the psychological hurdle of staging protests, they want to demonstrate again, one protester told the Guardian.
“This was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but thought was impossible,” said a 25-year-old NGO worker who was interrogated by police over the protests. “I want to protest again, but the authorities would be smarter and nip it in the bud. We feel perplexed and depressed … but now that I have seen so many brave faces, I have faith and courage again.”