In china Expressing grievances may be important, not calling for revolution. Bold claims are currently being made against a spate of pensioner protests sparked by changes to the city’s resident health insurance program. Indeed, the demonstrations lasted an unusually long time and spread across the country. Since January, from Guangzhou in the south to Dalian in the north, elderly people have gathered near government offices or in public squares, accusing authorities of looting them. The largest crowds emerged in the central city of Wuhan, where hundreds of retirees confronted police twice in one week in mid-February.In the eyes of some overseas Chinese commentators, this is tantamount to Baifa Yundong Or the “gray hair movement”. This makes the unhappy pensioner the successor to the young people who protested against strict control of the epidemic last November. Some of them held up blank papers to mock restrictions on free speech, earning the label the “white paper movement”. Going a step further, some overseas Chinese media dubbed today’s demonstrations a “white-haired revolution,” equating rallies in Wuhan and elsewhere with color revolutions or anti-government uprisings.
The Communist Party’s repressive machine does take these displays of anger seriously. Censors have been working to purge protest videos from the internet. Social media platforms have removed comments from netizens accusing authorities of austerity policies for the elderly and blaming cuts on costly “zero-coronavirus” containment measures that have drained local government coffers and hit the wider economy. There were reports that police had warned pensioners that their adult children would be harmed if they protested again. In Wuhan, residents posted screenshots of messages from schools asking parents to urge older relatives to avoid demonstrations and study official interpretations of new insurance rules.
Still, painting unhappy pensioners as dissidents does them a disservice, doubly. On the one hand, it mischaracterizes the protests, whose roots are more economic than ideological. To simplify things, a larger share of China’s (relatively stingy) health care spending in the future will go to a pooled fund to help urban workers and retirees who need hospital treatment for serious illnesses. Fewer funds will go into a parallel system of individual insurance accounts covering minor ailments. It was these proposed cuts that sparked protests from pensioners, though officials argued that the planned redistribution would actually benefit the oldest and sickest city dwellers Medicare’s restructuring was planned years ago when the zero-coronavirus policy weighed on the public budget). Some demonstrators sang the Communist anthem, The Internationale, to emphasize that they wanted more socialism, not less.
Talk of a gray-haired revolution does another kind of harm to older protesters. That means dissidents must demand that the party’s overthrow be taken seriously. That is to ignore a less obvious but important trend. Today, a surprising number of Chinese people feel anxious and fed up, and are willing to say the same in public.
Investigators flew to Wuhan and asked older residents to explain the recent protests in their own words. His sloppy polling found unanimity on one point. Locals agree that the protest over insurance rules is not an uprising against the government. Instead, they fit into the tradition of petitioning Chinese authorities for redress. It is no surprise that some demonstrators are now facing threats from the police. A retired bus driver who went out to walk his dog said that China allows citizens to vent their grievances within a certain range. “It’s not like foreigners say that Chinese people don’t have any freedom,” she suggested. In her account, China offers not total freedom but “ordered freedom” as a matter of course, although she implies that different restrictions apply to the rich and powerful. For her part, she thinks older protesters misunderstand that insurance reform will do them more good than harm. Still, she ventured to say that young people understand why pensioners are unhappy “because a lot of old people are dying from Covid-19.”
There is less consensus on whether petitioning helps. A couple in their 60s said talking about government policy “hasn’t changed anything”. A man who came home to cook for his son and grandson whispered that opposition parties were a quick way to get arrested. By contrast, a former worker at a state-owned enterprise sitting in one of Wuhan’s many lakes believes the party will now change course because it knows ordinary residents find the insurance reform “unreasonable.” Most of those interviewed believed President Xi Jinping and the central government were not to blame for the recent protests, despite the fact that insurance reform is a state policy. “The top leadership and the system itself are very good,” said the former state-owned enterprise worker. “But what the local government is doing now is not making people happy.”
Talk more about fairness than freedom
Less happy for Xi, a common explanation for the protests is that China has become more unequal and unfair. In particular, Wuhan locals accused senior officials and party cadres of receiving more generous pensions and medical insurance than other workers. In Zhongshan Park, where the two protests took place, an 80-year-old woman described China as a society of “two extremes”: government employees and low-paid and pensionable ordinary workers. She urged pensioners to leave parks and shout outside city and provincial government offices so leaders could hear them. “I’m old and can’t walk fast, so I can’t join them,” she laments.
Spontaneously, several people made the same point: For all China’s faults, America is worse. Wuhan locals hear similar lines every night on state television, citing gun violence, racism and inequality in the United States as evidence that Western-style democracy is harmful. This is a warning for the future. If slowing growth turns popular complaints into color revolutions, China’s rulers will see nationalism as their best defense.■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
China is losing Taiwan’s hearts and minds (February 16)
Lessons From China’s Spy Balloons (February 7)
Why Vladimir Putin Is Not a Pariah in China (February 2)
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