Home / Opinion / Views /  China cannot mask the failings of its autocracy

Social media has played a discernible role in Chinese unrest. Word went viral last week of nearly a dozen lives lost in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi to an apartment-block blaze behind barricades, with the horror of this fire-trap made worse by the alleged laxity of local fire-fighters. By most accounts, while this sparked the public anger behind the protests, whiffs of distrust had already been detected in posts about maskless crowds at Doha’s football stadiums—“Do we live on another planet?" went one refrain—that Beijing’s censors tried to blur off people’s screens. Online chatter has clearly catalyzed their will to swarm into urban spaces and chant slogans against their rulers in brave shows of defiance. But the biggest role in this dramatic turn of events was played by the Chinese state itself—i.e., by an autocratic ‘zero covid’ policy imposed by President Xi Jinping that has proven impossible to implement and pushed citizens to exasperation.

Right from January 2020, when Wuhan was sent into lockdown after a defiant doctor’s warning of a highly infectious new illness came true, Beijing has curbed people’s freedoms in ways found too harsh even by those with no say in how they’re governed, let alone observers familiar with democracy. Although vaccination coverage have relieved other countries of pandemic restrictions, China has responded even to post-vax waves of infection with stay-in orders, movement barriers, mandatory tests, isolation wards and big-stick policing in covid clusters. To millions of citizens who live under strict surveillance, this nightmare never seems to end. With factory production in a slump and the affected population growing restive, the regime recently said it would slowly ease its clamps. Local authorities, however, were still tasked with keeping covid numbers down, resulting in gaps between people’s expectations and experiences. With daily cases reported at around 40,000 on Saturday, ‘zero covid’ has remained out of reach. This is a failure that reveals the folly of China’s approach. The goal was set on the assumption that covid jabs would keep Sars-CoV-2 away. While its two vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, are not the duds that Sinosceptics portray them as, they are also no better than others produced the same way. They display an acceptable ratio of efficacy against covid (variably so vis-a-vis new virus variants), and hence their recipients are that much less likely to test positive. But their real benefit lies in securing lives by reducing the risk of a severe attack. A country that admits this reality would lower its aim in favour of a low mortality target instead—one that is achievable, does away with a testing frenzy and also lets it restore people’s agency over their daily lives.

Beijing, though, seems trapped by its own propaganda. Or, worse, by a fallible leadership basking in a self-adopted aura of infallibility. About a month ago, Xi was at a ruling-party gathering that endorsed his grip on power and upheld his zero-covid ambition. Like his call for “common prosperity", that might also have been just another slogan, but with liberty so easily suffocated by autocracy, the excesses of such a stern policy shouldn’t surprise us. Calls for freedom in a country where individuals have weak legal rights take courage. In 1989, an uprising at Tiananmen Square was crushed with brute force. This mustn’t happen again. The world is watching. For China to act as a ‘responsible power’, it must quit its games of make-believe and make peace with the truth.

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