By Yuri Prasad
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Protests in China battle regime’s lockdown plan

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Anger over repressive lockdown policies has fused with demands for more democracy
Issue 2833
Vigil for victims of the fire.

Students at Southwest Jiaotong University hold a vigil for victims of the fire that sparked the protests

A wave of protests against Covid lockdowns in China are a challenge to the regime and its zero-Covid strategy. It underlines that, just as in the West, the anti-Covid measures were driven by the needs of profit, not people’s needs.

At least ten cities, including Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan, were shaken by rare street demonstrations last weekend. The outbreak was sparked initially by a deadly ­apartment fire in Urumqi, in the Xinjiang region. Protesters there allege that a Covid lockdown ­hampered rescue efforts and made it harder for people to escape.

It was a sentiment that many in China could identify with. After nearly three years of pandemic restrictions, people have stories of being quarantined at home, ­sometimes with their doors welded shut by authorities.

The movement appears to be strongest on university campuses, where ­anti-lockdown sentiment has fused with demands for greater democracy. Their anger finds a ready echo among different layers of Chinese society. These range from migrant workers struggling with unemployment and food shortages during lockdowns to professionals angry at travel restrictions.

In Shanghai, demonstrators chanted for president Xi Jinping to resign—a bold demand in a country where dissent is punishable with long prison terms. Footage of that protest, obtained by the BBC, shows police squads dragging people away. Now authorities are said to be launching an even harsher crackdown.

The protesters’ anger comes amid a huge economic slowdown and the biggest Covid outbreak for at least six months, just as the state started to relax its measures. That means alongside anger at the Chinese state’s version of zero-Covid, there is a growing fear of a potentially devastating new wave.

Many think that if China abandons its Covid policy, the healthcare system will be overwhelmed. “Hospitals will inevitably face a shortage of beds to accommodate the influx of patients,” Michael Huang, who had just spent £500 on a ventilator, told the Financial Times newspaper. “I need to make sure my father receives treatment at home if the emergency room can’t take him.”

The risk of the health service collapsing is real. Health spending per person in China is just £458 a year, compared to Britain’s £4,313. And, only half of people over 80 years old have had two shots of the vaccine.

That means an influx of extremely vulnerable people with Covid is a genuine possibility. Lifting all Covid restrictions immediately in China would lead to 5 million hospitalisations and 1.55 million deaths, according to a peer-reviewed study by Shanghai’s Fudan University.

That points to the real reason why the Chinese state pioneered its own version of a zero-Covid strategy. It wanted to keep health spending low while at the same time keeping factories running at full capacity.

For a period, its strategy could show real advantages over those pursued so recklessly in Britain and the US. Some 313 people per 100,000 have died of Covid in Britain. In China the number is just 1.

What the recent wave of protests in China proves is that maintaining a ­lockdown policy in one country alone—and under threat of state violence—cannot hold forever. The only zero-Covid strategy that stood a chance was one dictated and implemented by ordinary people themselves.

Is China a socialist country?

The recent 20th congress of the Communist Party of China was bedecked with red flags and hammer and sickle motifs that you would expect in a Stalinist regime. The state owns and controls most of the biggest corporations. But the country also has an abundance of millionaires and billionaires—some 1,305 people have a net worth of over £570 million.

The richest 10 percent own nearly 70 percent of all household wealth, so China can hardly be described as an equal society. The free market runs in ways similar to any other major world power. It is subject to the same drive towards booms and busts that Karl Marx pointed to in his descriptions of capitalism. And workers have no real democratic control. 

So despite the imagery, China isn’t socialist. A revolutionary movement led by Mao Zedong in 1949 overthrew a corrupt dictatorship. It was a positive blow against imperialist countries and companies that wanted to continue their domination of China.

But Mao aimed to work within capitalism. He wanted to industrialise what he saw as a backward society. In place of the old elite, the Communist Party installed its own people to run agriculture and industry. And all of China’s resources were said to be owned by the state.

This allowed the leadership to declare China as socialist. But all the exploitative practices and inequalities associated with capitalism remained.

China engaged in military and economic competition with other states. And it sought to accumulate capital, forcing peasants and workers to labour in appalling conditions. That’s why the description of China as “state capitalist” best fits.

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