Extraordinary protests quickly spread across China over the weekend, including major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, since a fire Thursday claimed a reported 10 lives in an apartment block in Urumqi, in the northwestern part of the country.
China's people were enraged by the regime's COVID controls, which had prevented firefighters from reaching the scene of the tragedy in time. "This is people past their breaking point," tweeted CNN's Selina Wang on Sunday.
Also on Sunday, the Telegraph's Simina Mistreanu reported on Twitter that a crowd numbering at least 100 began marching toward Tiananmen Square, in the heart of the Chinese capital. Police, however, stopped demonstrators after only a few blocks, at the Liangma River. "The fact that they intended to protest at Tiananmen," she wrote, "is wild."
Mistreanu is right. Observers say the weekend disturbances —China was quiet on Monday— are the most significant since mass demonstrations rocked the Chinese capital and some 370 other cities in the Beijing Spring of 1989. In many respects, however, the ongoing protests are more dangerous to China's Communist Party.
As Charles Burton, a China scholar at the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute, told Gatestone, even the 1989 Tiananmen Movement "did not challenge the fundamentals of Party rule over China." Protestors then only wanted hardliners like Premier Li Peng removed to make way for "democratic reforms;" in other words, "Party-mediated democratization of China," as Burton termed it. Today, however, many Chinese want to get rid of the Party. As Mistreanu reported, the demonstrators she witnessed in Beijing were chanting "We want freedom, equality, democracy, rule of law." "We don't want dictatorship," they shouted.
The weekend's demonstrations also resemble the protests in 1949. That year, Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek's ruling Nationalists. Then, Chiang commanded far superior armies than the Communists, but his regime nonetheless quickly fell. Why did that happen? Chiang's Nationalists had, the acclaimed China historian Yu Ying-shih once told me, "lost people's hearts." The CCP, as the Chinese Communist Party is informally known, has now lost hearts across the country.
China, throughout the Communist period, has witnessed demonstrations, but most of them are, as Burton noted, "highly localized" and "directed at malfeasance, corruption, and incompetence of lower level Communist functionaries." Now, however, the anger is directed at the Party itself. In short, as evident from the spontaneous demonstrations of the weekend, the Chinese people have had enough of Xi Jinping and CCP rule. They recognize the fundamental fact that the Party's system does not work.
Xi cemented his position over the Communist Party at last month's 20th National Congress, but the Party is losing control of Chinese society.
Xi, who this weekend heard the chants demanding he step down, probably knows he cannot win back Chinese hearts short of starting a war. That gives everyone a direct stake in what happens next on China's streets.
The Chinese people are not only angry over Xi's "dynamic Zero-COVID policy"; they are also troubled by a crumbling economy and the collapse of the all-important property sector. New-home prices in 70 cities, for instance, fell in October for the 14h-straight month. There have been abnormally few sales in recent months as the market is "frozen," with big spreads between what sellers demand and what buyers are willing to pay. These drops in prices and sales are of great concern because some 70% of Chinese household wealth is tied up in property. China's people, as a result, were not happy even before Thursday's fatal blaze.
Popular attitudes suggest that China will remain unstable for some time. So why should the international community care about the current instability in China? Because China's regime might lash out. If the Communist Party looked as if it would fall quickly, Xi could not lash out. He would have to devote all his resources at home, deploying the People's Liberation Army internally. If, however, the crisis plays out over a long time, Xi will have the opportunity to try to direct popular anger at neighboring countries or the United States and aim the Chinese military abroad.
The world was fortunate that the Soviet Union dissolved fast, but do not expect China to go as quickly. Xi Jinping, in a secret speech to Communist Party cadres in December 2012 — the month after he took power as Party general secretary — criticized Mikhail Gorbachev for allowing the Soviet state to fail. The Soviet leader, Xi said, was not a "real man."
Xi, who does consider himself a "real man," has already during his ten years as general secretary exacerbated xenophobia in China. Fomenting hatred of America, to save the Communist Party from popular unrest, would not be a big step for him.
Xi, who this weekend heard the chants demanding he step down, probably knows he cannot win back Chinese hearts short of starting a war.
That gives everyone a direct stake in what happens next on China's streets.