China’s Xi slap bang in the middle of a major crisis

China is indeed in the grip of a rare challenge to the authority of President Xi Jinping with a Tiananmen-type fear looming large on the security forces.

The involvement of students in the latest protests in China has been a cause for serious concern among the leadership. The student community is one cross section of population Beijing has always feared in terms of their ability to effectively coordinate any anti-government activity. Their access to electronic communication systems and ability to connect at a pace faster than the security agencies can anticipate has been a major advantage for the youth to pro-actively project the real situation on ground leading to better spread of genuine information.

There is a lack of clarity on the part of the government on the magnitude of the threat posed, but this has been triggered by anger over the government’s rigid “Zero Covid” policy of locking down vast areas over the slightest hint of re-emergence of the Corona virus or its variants.

The repressive manner of handling the tight controls which the government imposed on the people has been a major reason for such wide spread protests across the country. An increasingly stifling Covid norm without any prior information or arrangements for logistics in terms of organising food and supplies was mainly responsible for generating a loss of faith in the government.

Moreover, once the protests broke out the government dealt with the protestors in a brutal manner, resorting to high-handed tactics including physically targeting them in certain cases. This only further distanced the public from the government and led to a more coordinated engagement between the protestors across the country. The fact that all this was happening around the time Xi Jinping took over the reins of the government for another term portrayed the government in a poor light at the international level.

With Beijing being blamed for Covid from the very initial stages, its inability to handle the pandemic yet, only further adds to the systemic problem in China in dealing with this problem.

There is a general belief among experts in China that the entire issue brought to the fore the inherent weaknesses within the security matrix which was evident from the failure of the agencies in gauging the situation in advance and countering it in time. The modus operandi adopted by the government to deal with the crisis and the disjointed manner in which the security forces coordinated their efforts to face the challenge was a clear indication that Beijing was taken by surprise by the developments.

China-based experts claim that the security agencies never expected a pan-national spread of the protests. Moreover, their ability to coordinate efforts among the relevant agencies in different provinces fell far short of the desired effectiveness. An element of indecisiveness and lack of professionalism within the security apparatus was glaringly evident during the critical phase of the crisis.

Some China experts have alluded to the fact that in such situations involving a breakdown of systems and control, the possibility of the elite and the influential members of the society and sections of the bureaucracy being impacted by the negative narrative cannot be ruled out.

Such influence, if affects the PLA and relevant sections of the CCP – particularly those who are not well disposed towards Beijing, can cause major problems for the Chinese leadership. Given this backdrop, efforts by Xi in crafting out a cordon of close confidants around him in all the vital institutions has gone a long way in securing him from what could have been a larger chaos.

While Beijing has been easing the stringent norms slowly, the government would find it difficult to defend its ‘Zero Covid’ policy which was inhumane in many ways and based on knee-jerk action targeting larger population groups. The sheer absurdity of targeting a population group because of the few cases of Covid in their vicinity was detested by people across the board.

Moreover, the concept of isolation was also not pursued in a pragmatic manner with mass scale hospitalisation becoming the norm. This led people to protest and resist rampant hospitalisation as they felt that the concept of herding those infected together could further cause mass scale infection rather than cure those with mild symptoms.

Any effort to impose a complete turnaround in its anti Covid action program at this stage could render the government’s stringent anti-Covid strategy as hollow and devoid of the sensitivities involved. The communist party has been averse to accepting any decision-making flaws in the past and would refrain from doing so in this case too. For one, this would to a great degree have an adverse impact on the decision making ability of Xi Jinping.

Having emerged strong from the Party Congress, any turnaround would certainly not be the preferred option for Beijing. There is no doubt that the government would have to evince on a massive image makeover campaign to prevent any dent to its prestige and image.

For the rest of the world, such developments need to be watched and gauged carefully as any form of instability in China could be used by Beijing to divert attention by way of undertaking serious external adventurism that could have serious international ramifications.

In 1962, in order to divert attention from the internal woes, Mao Zedong had preferred the conflict with India. Today the situation along the LAC remains uncertain with both sides ensuring large scale presence of troops in the high altitude region.

One of the issues which has caused serious embarrassment to Beijing is the much hyped projections about the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine on Covid. While China has been confidently selling the vaccine to different countries, its inability to secure its own population from Covid at a time when most countries have managed to stave off the menace indicates the hollowness of the Chinese claims on the vaccine. A dilution may also entail importing vaccine from overseas – a move the Chinese establishment considers as poor reflection of its capabilities in the field.

The anti-Covid protests have no doubt caused a serious dent in President Xi’s image and also the lack of ability of the government to deal with such crisis situations. Managing a Chinese nation with a vibrant, aware and conscious population which is vocal about their rights is going to be challenging for Beijing in the coming days.




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