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Breaking Out of Xi’s Great Prison

Chinese citizens from Urumqi to Shanghai took to the streets, blank sheets of white paper in hand, to denounce the CCP and call for change. Xi Jinping’s repression and zero-covid lockdowns have united the public in empathy and anger.

By Guoguang Wu

December 2022 

Today a blank sheet of A4 paper is a dangerous political symbol in China. In the mass protests that spread across the country for days after November 25, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens held up pieces of paper as they gathered to demonstrate their discontent and anger toward the government. These protesters chanted a variety of slogans, some simply calling for minimal adjustments to the zero-covid policy and others demanding citizen rights and freedoms, and even the resignation of leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is the blank paper, however, that most aptly illustrates both the people’s plight and their desires: We are not able to say anything, but we are in protest.

This “white-paper revolution” likely surprised many inside and outside of China, as it broke out just weeks after Xi’s triumph at the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, essentially consolidating his rule for years to come and sidelining dissent from within the party leadership. Yet this timeline actually helps to explain why the protests are happening now. To this author’s mind, it is the beginning of the Chinese people’s final battle against “Xi Jinping’s new era” of CCP rule, an era notable for the regime’s efforts to turn China into even more of a prison state.

Life in China, Prison-Style

The fuse that sparked the current wave of protests was a deadly apartment fire on November 24 in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s far northwest, that claimed the lives of at least ten residents (and perhaps more than forty, according to the report of a Uyghur dissident citing local sources), as the building itself and the units within were all locked from outside by local authorities — a zero-covid measure. The tragedy drove many Urumqi residents into the street to protest. Four-thousand kilometers away in Shanghai, a city whose twenty-million-plus residents had suffered greatly during a Covid lockdown earlier this year, a spontaneous mass vigil brought protesters to a street named after Urumqi (ironically, the name symbolizes Xinjiang’s inclusion in Han-dominated China). Similar protests involving urban residents and university students followed in many other cities, including Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, and the Chinese capital, Beijing.

The living conditions of those fire victims in Urumqi — within locked rooms for days, weeks, or even months — are not an exception in China. Since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, residents of China have been living under extraordinary circumstances in which government authorities, if they deemed it necessary, could ban people from doing their daily food shopping, from visiting doctors and hospitals even when seriously ill, from leaving their homes to walk in fresh air. At the same time, the government requires every single person, including newborn babies, to receive nucleic-acid-amplification testing — every day, if not more frequently, in many places. Test results are then coded as red (covid-positive or having come in contact with covid-positive persons), yellow (covid-suspicious), or green (covid-negative) and sent to the person’s mobile phone. These codes serve as digital traffic lights that either allow or prohibit each person’s personal physical movement in the real world.

Numerous humanitarian tragedies have taken place due to these strict measures. A pregnant woman about to give birth or an old man about to die can be denied entry to hospital emergency rooms if their “public health code” is not green. Moreover, residents believed to have come in close contact with the virus can be forcibly sent to mobile cabin (field) hospitals where respect for basic dignity, let alone individual rights, is completely absent. According to a Wall Street Journal report, a Ukrainian citizen living in Shanghai who was put in such a facility was not allowed to shower for 18 days and, as the light was kept on 24 hours a day, lived without nighttime during the entire time period. She said that she felt like a “Covid criminal.”

In fact, for the last three years, China has been operating like a “great prison” and treating all its residents like criminals. As a political scientist who focuses on Chinese politics, I’m not entirely certain how to label the current Chinese political system. Totalitarianism or neototalitarianism? Yes, but these terms do not seem to sufficiently capture what’s going on. No doubt that the Mao Zedong regime was totalitarian, but people living in Mao’s China generally could walk outdoors if they wanted. Moreover, if China became a great prison after 2020, the start date was even earlier in Xinjiang, where ethnic cleansing was well underway long before covid. The pandemic has helped Xi’s regime to expand throughout China the Xinjiang model. This is an extraordinary version of totalitarianism that takes regime control of the populace to an extreme — every minute of the day and every aspect of life of every single person. Not only are people’s rights to a social existence denied, but their very biological existence is strictly controlled, monitored, and deprived by the regime. This can only be compared to prison life.

The Protests’ Real Target

The current protests must be understood in this context. These demonstrations appear to me to be the delayed beginning of popular resistance to what I call Xi’s Great Prison project. Viewing the white-paper protests through the lens of that project sheds light on their genesis and spread, and perhaps even their longer-term implications. The origins of the Great Prison are richly meaningful. The CCP’s repression of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang has been escalating for years, and includes, most notoriously, the establishment of numerous internment (“re-education” or “vocational”) camps beginning in 2018 — this is the real start of Xi’s Great Prison project. That means that the people of Xinjiang, especially the Uyghurs but also the Han people there, have suffered in prison-like conditions for much longer than the rest of the country. It is, therefore, no surprise that they were the first to openly protest this system. Nor is it surprising that Shanghai residents followed suit immediately, given their miserable covid lockdown in March and April. The harsh lockdown of that city, the most-developed and internationalized place in China, demonstrated that everyone is a “covid criminal” in the Great Prison — even those living in a better economy with higher incomes, more education, more international connections, and even some political influence. Shanghai, after all, is a major powerbase of many top-ranking CCP leaders, including Xi himself.

It is the regime’s treatment of everyone everywhere inside the Great Prison that best explains how far and how quickly the protests spread from Urumqi to Shanghai and beyond. The shared experience of the Great Prison has created empathy among people across the country. Yesterday, tragedy struck the “red-coded” passengers who were killed when the bus transporting them to a distant concentration camp–like mobile cabin hospital crashed in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Today, tragedy strikes the victims of the Urumqi apartment fire, who were locked in a burning building. Tomorrow, it could be anybody’s turn to suffer. This empathetic shared consciousness is rising among China’s citizens, as evidenced by the protesters’ slogans, speeches, and songs. Without it, the demonstrations in Urumqi could not have sparked protests across the country overnight.

The Fall of the Chinese Bastille?

What are the implications of the white-paper protests? How is the CCP regime responding to them? And how will these protests affect China’s future? The answers obviously depend on many factors, but the Great Prison scheme is the lynchpin shaping the dynamics that will determine how events surrounding the protests and covid policies unfold.

The CCP regime’s fierce anti-covid measures remain mysterious to those living in China and outside observers alike. The regime claims they are meant to protect the people, yet it ignores the advice of public-health experts when crafting its anti-pandemic policies, refuses to introduce effective, internationally approved vaccines, and ignores the suffering that measures such as lockdowns and forced stay-orders impose on citizens, not to mention the enormous economic costs. Some observers blame all this on Xi’s supposed stupidity and stubbornness. I find this unconvincing, especially when we just witnessed, via the Party Congress, how scheming, calculating, and deliberate Xi Jinping is in playing politics. More likely, Xi has a significant, political purpose in insisting on his ridiculous anti-pandemic measures. It might be impossible to peer into his mind, but the political outcome of his anti-covid policy is now observable: With those measures, the Greater Prison system has come into force across China.

This will have huge implications — for the everyday life of people in China and for the future of the outside world. Why does Xi want to build up such a system despite the high costs? Does this plan foretell other political adventures that Xi and the CCP may be planning? I am not suggesting any grand conspiracy theory. But there can be plenty of conspiring in the politics of dictatorships, and putting citizens into a Great Prison must qualify as a huge, criminal enterprise.

Those brave women and men holding up their white papers have common demands born of their shared experiences under the Great Prison of China, notably, to put an end to it. But some minimalists, for both strategic and substantive reasons, simply want to return to the pre–Great Prison way of life; others, meanwhile, are calling for freedoms, rights, and a voice in public policy. These goals are not in conflict with one another when they are together confronting the Great Prison, but sussing out the deeper implications of the resistance movement remains a challenge. The only near certainty is that the path ahead, if not blocked entirely, will not be short, direct, or smooth, especially as the regime responds by alternately relaxing anti-covid controls and severely cracking down on protesters.

No matter, however, the regime will continue its Great Prison project when the protests subside. And doing so will invite future protests. The white-paper protests have thus already changed the dynamics of China’s political development by opening a path for the country that differs markedly from Xi’s intended path — tearing down the Great Prison versus building it up. If the forces of resistance born of these protests manage to prevail — which would likely take years of struggle — it would constitute the fall of the twenty-first century’s Bastille. The events in Paris on 14 July 1789 reverberated far beyond France’s borders. The fall of Xi Jinping’s Great Prison would likewise mark a new era not just for China but for the entire world.

Guoguong Wu is a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on China’s Economy and Institutions.


Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images




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