unext road On a bridge in central Beijing just before 2 a.m. on Nov. 28, one of the city’s most powerful men came face to face with young people desperate for China’s draconian “zero-coronavirus” containment measures. The brief meeting revealed something on several fronts. It offers a glimpse into the security apparatus built by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, and the confidence the Communist Party places in it. On the part of the protesters, it shows how, in today’s China, youthful idealism is tempered by a sober awareness of the party’s power.
Overall, this is a worrying time for Xi Jinping and his regime. The covid-19 epidemic is raging in China, and the public is deeply disappointed with the government’s virus control measures. This has sparked protests across the country in recent days, chaining up angry workers, residents of locked-down cities and students. In the icy depths of that Beijing night, hundreds of young Chinese staged a demonstration rarely seen in the capital. They lit candles for the victims of lockdown and called for an end to endless covid testing and isolation of every positive case. They sang the “Internationale” and a farewell song to the victims, especially the families who lost their lives in the apartment building fire in western Xinjiang, after fire escapes were said to be blocked. Dozens of cars drove by, honking their horns in solidarity, as social media spread news of the protest along the Liangma River. For five hours, police officers in uniform and plainclothes mingled with the crowd, filming every moment without intervening.
Now, the remaining demonstrators found themselves outnumbered by the police, with new police lines emerging from the darkness every minute. Everyone there understands that the authorities are putting an end to this event.Protesters sense a white-haired man, flanked by a police wall, is a spirit island, a leader. They are right. Quietly, after the young man demanded to know his identity and whether he held a district or street-level position, the man revealed his title: chief of the Beijing Public Security Bureau.
Moments earlier, after observing protests for hours, Inspector was pulled from the crowd by police, questioned and told to leave. A witness’s smartphone video captured the meeting with the police chief, which began seconds later. A young protester in a white coat, unmasked despite the risk of punishment, began negotiating with the person in charge, Qi Yanjun. “If you heard our voices, then none of this would have been in vain,” the protester said, as if paying the price for leaving.Mr. Qi grew impatient and murmured, “Okay okay. Let’s go.” The protester made another demand, saying, “We need to know who you are.” Without waiting for an answer, the young man used a An honorific title dating back to the Empire era, telling the police chief: “You are our FumuguanThe title, which means “parent officer,” was often used to describe local officials in the imperial era, conjuring Confucian teachings about filial piety and hierarchy, and the idea that the state should exercise social control like strict parents. The moment speaks volumes Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader at the start of his second decade in power, has built an authoritarian system that is both uncomfortably modern, backed by surveillance technology that leaves opponents nowhere to hide, and very Tradition, which draws strength from patriarchal notions of state power.
Mr. Qi responded kindly. There are a lot of police here, but they won’t hit you, they’re protecting you, he told the protesters. Then he made a veiled threat: “Go now, you can go home safely.” When the young man yelled: “The chief of public security in Beijing has heard what we have to say!”, he growled “Don’t yell”. Finally, his officers chased everyone away.
The next day, prominent nationalist commentators praised the restraint of Beijing police before claiming that hostile foreign powers had organized the protests as a “color revolution.” This is doubly misleading. For one thing, almost as soon as the protests were over, the police started chasing those who were there. Many young people were summoned to police stations to sign statements showing officers their social media contacts and answering questions about their political views. Fears grew as police were called in to crush protests called for the following night after some unknown mobile phone data, surveillance camera images and infiltration of social media groups were used to identify and track the militants. On the other hand, nationalists would be wrong to call these events foreign influences. Those present were out of genuine anger at the Covid-19 controls that had restricted their freedom for nearly three years. More importantly, they combine boldness, caution and an instinctive understanding of bargaining with those in power that are uniquely Chinese.
living under surveillance
That night, by the Liangma River, your columnist was approached by young people excitedly expressing their disbelief that they had participated in the protests. Others worried about going too far, citing mass arrests at protests in Shanghai the night before. Individuals who started anti-government slogans were quickly overwhelmed or overwhelmed by the rendition of the national anthem. As the police moved through the crowd, patiently filming and eavesdropping, those present vacillated between laughing at the police and declaring their love for China.
Anger over the zero virus policy matters because the party has no good options to quell it. China cannot quickly lift its grip on the coronavirus without risking a wave of infection chaos. This is a serious dilemma, not least because dissatisfaction with the lockdown has sparked such diverse demonstrations, including migrant workers who are unafraid of violence. Political protests involving students, as seen in Beijing, are harder to assess. Young Chinese demanding greater freedom grabbed global headlines. But it was unclear whether anyone present had any hope of changing their country. Being heard is a triumph. In the days to come, those who speak out will know the price to pay. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
China’s economic slowdown is hurting young people (November 24)
China’s steampunk covid response (November 17)
Xi Jinping Revises the Chinese Dream (November 10)
All of our stories related to the pandemic can be found in our Coronavirus Hub.