A tense time in China

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A tense time in China

Nam Jeong-ho

The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A few days ago, I noticed something in the university area of Sinchon in Seoul. It was an anti-Xi Jinping poster on a pillar. Over a large background reading “Free China,” the poster was full of slogans such as, “We will choose our leader, not a dictator.” Such demands cannot be made in China under the rule of Xi. As the expressions in Korean read a little awkward, that indicated the poster was created by a Chinese student studying here.

The slogans came from an anti-Xi banner hung on the Sitong Bridge overpass in central Beijing two days before the National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October. The protester must have been afraid of punishment from Beijing, but he or she seems to have been very desperate to get his or her message out. It seems to have worked, as the blank paper protests demonstrate.

China is in intense turmoil. While the blank paper protests prompted by the Covid-19 lockdown spread fast, former President Jiang Zemin,― a symbol of reform and openness, passed away. An anti-dictatorship movement is about to explode. When a political heavyweight passes away, democratization protests can take place in China.

The 1976 Tiananmen Square protest took place after the funeral of former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, a widely respected Chinese leader. The protest in 1989 was precipitated by the death of CPC General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a symbol of democratization. On top of that, the world celebrates Human Rights Day on Dec. 10. China’s human rights activists held protests on the day often. It is no surprise that the Xi administration is tense about the situation.

The latest protests may seem like a movement against China’s unreasonable Covid policy. But such perspectives overlook the flow of history. The latest protests can be connected to the decision of the United States two decades ago when Washington allowed China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and bring it into the global economy. In the late 1990s, U.S. President Bill Clinton believed China would eventually be democratized if the country joined the WTO. Before visiting China in 1998, the U.S. president issued a statement. “By integrating China into the community of nations and global economy, helping its leadership understand that greater freedom profoundly serves China’s interests, and standing up for our principles, we can most effectively serve the cause of democracy and human rights in China,” he said. Clinton urged China to recognize that their relationship will not reach its full potential as long as Chinese people are denied fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion. It was an optimism based on the modernization theory that economic development will produce a larger middle class population and democratization will be achieved when they demand freedom.

But China acted differently from those expectations over the past two decades. It accomplished economic growth, but regressed to an authoritarian state after Xi took power. When the international community raised the issues of human rights and democratization, the Xi administration ignored it by saying there is a different development model for China. But Chinese people’s dissatisfactions are exploding about the draconian lockdowns associated with the zero Covid policy. With the funeral of Jiang and the upcoming Human Rights Day, the protests may grow into something more powerful.

Although observers say that there is no orchestrator of the protests, an anti-dictatorship uprising is possible without strong leaders in the era of SNS, as we witnessed during the Arab Spring in early 2010. Many Chinese have already tasted freedom by visiting foreign countries. In 2000, about 10 million Chinese people took overseas trips. In 2019 shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, 155 million traveled overseas.

The bigger problem is that the Xi administration is in a quandary over the pandemic. If it abandons the its zero Covid policy, its public health system will be paralyzed and over 2 million deaths are expected, so it cannot lift the lockdowns easily.

If China changes, it will have a huge impact on Korea, from national security to the economy. Korea faces tough challenges from a unionized truckers’ strike, but it is crucial for Koreans to pay special heed to the future of the protests in China. It could be the beginning of a whole new world.
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