Has Xi Jinping pushed China’s people too far?

The Economist, 26.11.2022
Adam Roberts (digital editor)

I’ve been thinking this weekend about Churchill’s joke about democracy. In 1947, quoting an unknown wit, he called it the worst form of government—the worst, that is, apart from all the others. Despite democracies’ mess and imperfections, they at least let ordinary people vent frustrations. Elected rulers are compelled to adjust, to be ready to step back from a policy—such as endlessly prolonging mass lockdowns to fight covid-19—when voters can’t bear it.

Is there trouble brewing in China? A perennial threat to the country is that Communist autocrats, in power for so many decades, become unbending. In turn a risk is that the masses could suddenly snap and reject the legitimacy of those in charge—especially when economic conditions are gloomy. So change, when it comes, risks being disruptive or even violent. At the most extreme think of the painful, bloody years of the Arab Spring that followed decades of brittle, autocratic rule in much of north Africa. Look, too, at what is unfolding as protests in Iran potentially threaten that regime.

I’m not suggesting China actually faces such a moment—but it is fascinating to see how protests have apparently grown more common in recent months. By one estimate this is already the toughest political test for the government since 1989 and Tiananmen Square. In the past couple of days these have erupted in Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi and elsewhere, amid popular fury over those lockdowns. More notable, some people are calling for democratic freedoms, like free speech, and even daring to say Xi Jinping should go. In Xinjiang there’s a particular cause of anger: it appears covid restrictions slowed the response of fire services in tackling a blaze that killed at least 10 people on Thursday.

I’ll be fascinated to see what comes next. Does Mr Xi adjust his repressive covid policy? Reportedly some lockdowns are being eased “in stages” in Xinjiang. Or might this be a moment for harsher crackdowns and repression? And could those who protested once start to get a taste for more? I’ll rely on the reporting of our team in China: we have just published our latest analysis of the situation on the ground, including our correspondents’ experience of witnessing protests this weekend.

Elsewhere, we have our eye on Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro may be coming in from the cold. America’s government has started to adjust its stance there. It has just agreed that Chevron can start operating there, again. Talks between Mr Maduro and the opposition signal some frostiness is easing. The bigger context? As the West has tried to isolate Russia, and seeks alternative sources of oil, it naturally has an interest in warming to a country with 20% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

I’ll be watching other stories. Emmanuel Macron heads to Washington this week for a state visit. This is a chance to discuss how the West can better support Ukraine in the winter months—and more broadly to think about the best ways to bolster western Europe at a difficult time. The knock-on effects of the war, and high energy prices, could yet lead to unusually large numbers of deaths of many elderly Europeans. We’ve calculated that, in the worst scenario, Europe could see as many extra deaths as there have been combat killings inside Ukraine so far.

And there’s plenty to occupy my colleagues who write about business, finance and economics. We have just published a look at which businesses turned out to be winners (and which losers) from the past few years of upheaval caused by covid, war, inflation and more. We’ve also got our eyes on Microsoft, and whether antitrust concerns would scupper its purchase of Activision. And there’s the ongoing saga of the crypto collapse. Some parts of the crypto world may yet emerge stronger from the current fray.

I’d like to hear what you think. On China, in particular, do you see reasons to believe bigger upheavals are looming? Might Mr Xi be ready to bend after all, on his covid policy, or will he opt for ever stricter repression and control? Send your thoughts to us here: economisttoday@economist.com. And you can also follow me on Twitter.

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