The mass protests in several Chinese cities about continued COVID lockdowns include public calls for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to step down from power.
CNN notes that hundreds of protesters are calling for “greater democracy and freedom.” Thousands of Chinese citizens across the country — in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan, and at several universities — have courageously taken to the streets to voice their opposition to COVID restrictions and CCP rule.
We can expect a regime crackdown similar to that which occurred in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests, which also spread to other cities in China. Don’t expect the rise of a CCP Gorbachev. And this development makes war in the South China Sea more likely.
The protests began in the wake of a deadly fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in western China, that resulted in the deaths of 10 people. Urumqi has been in COVID lockdown for more than 100 days. CNN reports that videos of the fire showed that lockdown restrictions delayed firefighters in their efforts to rescue victims. Protesters have been beaten and arrested. Physical barriers have been erected to block major roads. Videos of protests have been removed from the regime-controlled internet. The ubiquitous state surveillance system will enable the regime to identify and prosecute protesters.
On the international stage, the greater danger is that if internal dissent gets out of control, Xi may launch a war to reunify Taiwan with the mainland to maintain internal control over China. A “patriotic” war to reclaim Taiwan could be used by the CCP leadership to unify the country against an outside enemy, i.e., the Taiwanese government and perhaps the United States. Xi only has to look back at Mao Zedong’s war against India in 1962, which experts contend Mao launched to strengthen internal control in the wake of his disastrous Great Leap Forward that killed tens of millions of Chinese people in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Prior to the Sino-Indian War, Mao’s leadership was under attack due to the catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward. Bertil Lintner argues that Mao “was discredited and, very likely on his way out,” and decided that the best way to maintain his power was by unifying the country against a foreign foe.
Claude Arpi, writing in the Indian Defence Review, explained that the war with India is “closely linked” to Mao’s regaining total power.
Or Xi can look to China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979, which Richard Chen concluded was launched at least in part to consolidate Deng Xiaoping’s internal power in the wake of Mao’s death and the resultant struggle for power within the CCP.
Joshua Eisenman, then a senior fellow for China Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, agreed that Deng “advocated the attack on Vietnam because it allowed him to accelerate military modernization and de-Maoification and thus defeat his political rival[s] … and take control of China.”
The mass protests in China threaten to weaken and undermine Xi’s recent internal triumph at the 20th Party Congress. If the protests continue and spread even further within China, Xi will not only have to ramp up the repressive security apparatus to crush dissent, but he may attempt, as Mao and Deng did, to unify the country by launching a war. The gathering storm in the South China Sea just got scarier.