Xi Jinping could be forced to ‘back down’ over Covid crackdowns

Xi Jinping “may back down” from his strict “Zero Covid” policy after nationwide protests have begun to threaten his rule, an expert has claimed. Lijia Zhang, who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests more than 30 years ago, said on Monday that while reaction to the current protests “could go both ways”, the autocrat may “somehow relax the controls” to appease the volatile crowds. Though rebellion and dissent rarely go unpunished in China, and its ability to effect change is more often than not non-existent, the scale of these protests may force Xi’s hand. Ms Zhang urged the Chinese Communist Party and its leader to remember the Chinese aphorism that the “people are like water and their ruler, a boat”, suggesting a swelling voice could as much carry a leader as topple them. 

Asked if she believed Xi could replicate the Tiananmen Square atrocities in cracking down on protesters, Ms Zhang said: “I think it can go both ways. There could be either a crackdown, certainly in the immediate future, but he may back down a little bit [in the longer term]. 

“It is up to him but he may somehow relax the controls and say ‘We have done really well’. Or he could at least provide some timeline. For the moment, it is open-ended and people just don’t have hope. I think that is very important.” 

Ms Zhang added: “If I could talk to Xi Jinping, I want him to remember one thing: we have a Chinese saying that says ‘People are like water and the ruler, a boat’. People who can carry a boat can also overturn it. I hope he will remember that.” 

Rallies against China’s unusually strict anti-virus measures spread to several cities over the weekend and continued in Hong Kong on Monday. 

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Students in the southern city chanted “oppose dictatorship” in a protest of China’s COVID-19 rules after demonstrators on the mainland issued an unprecedented call for President Xi Jinping to resign in the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades.

Authorities have already eased some regulations, apparently to try to quell that public anger, but the government showed no sign of backing down on its larger coronavirus strategy, and analysts expect authorities to quickly silence the dissent.

The gathering in Hong Kong was the biggest protests there in more than a year under rules imposed to crush a pro-democracy movement in the territory, which is Chinese but has a separate legal system from the mainland.

“I’ve wanted to speak up for a long time, but I did not get the chance to,” said James Cai, a 29-year-old from Shanghai who attended a Hong Kong protest and held up a piece of white paper, a symbol of defiance against the ruling party’s pervasive censorship. ”If people in the mainland can’t tolerate it anymore, then I cannot as well.”

It wasn’t clear how many people have been detained since the protests began on Friday, sparked by anger over the deaths of 10 people in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. 

Some have questioned whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls.

The city government of Beijing announced it would no longer set up gates to block access to apartment compounds where infections are found.

“Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” said Wang Daguang, a city official in charge of epidemic control, according to the official China News Service.

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Guangzhou, a manufacturing and trade centre that is the biggest hot spot in China’s latest wave of infections, announced some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing.

Urumqi, where the fire occurred, and another city in the Xinjiang region in the northwest announced markets and other businesses in areas deemed at low risk of infection would reopen this week and public bus service would resume.

“Zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped to keep China’s case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries. 

But tolerance for the measures has flagged as people in some areas have been confined at home for up to four months and say they lack reliable access to food and medical supplies.

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