'People want freedom from draconian lockdowns': expert on China protests
The China protests against the 'zero-COVID' policy aren't new as Freedom House has tracked 79 earlier demonstrations, but latest wave are united in time and symbolism.
Summary: The demands for political reform seen in the latest wave of demonstrations in China under the “zero-COVID” policy are uncommon and pose a dilemma for Beijing, Freedom House’s Kevin Slater tells me.
The basic notion of fundamental political rights isn’t just a concept for Western nations, but an aspiration and expectation for humanity across the globe, even for people living under autocratic regimes.
That’s what one expert on human rights in China, observing from offshore in Taipei the latest wave of protests that erupted over the weekend, says is coming through demonstrations against “zero-COVID” policy, which have risen to global visibility as Beijing has moved to squash them.
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Kevin Staten, who compiles data on demonstrations in China as a researcher for Freedom House, a U.S-based international rights organization, shed light on the protests Wednesday via email in response to a series of questions from the Weekly Dystopia.
“While all of the protests are linked through discontent with Covid-19 lockdowns, a number of the protests have even extended grievances to fundamental political rights,” Slaten said. “While protests are frequent in China, such explicit political demands are less common.”
Watching the protests the unfold and recognizing their resonance with the Weekly Dystopia’s key principles valuing liberty and freedom, as well as the implications for China as it challenges the United States on a global stage. I reached out to Freedom House with questions on the protests, including whether they could result in a meaningful change in the autocratic regime.
The full Q&A with Slaten, who has gathers data on protests in China for Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor, follows below:
Weekly Dystopia: How are protests coming together in China, including any use of social media by the protesters?
Kevin Slaten: The movement that has occurred over the past week is really an extension and expansion of a wave of protests against pandemic restrictions across the country which has ongoing for months. The China Dissent Monitor has already put 79 such protests in our public database, all predating the most recent protests. What differs in the most recent protests is that they are more connected in time and symbolism. Protesters appear to be aware of and playing off of each other, even though they are likely not coordinating directly. Moreover, while all of the protests are linked through discontent with Covid-19 lockdowns, a number of the protests have even extended grievances to fundamental political rights. While protests are frequent in China, such explicit political demands are less common.
Weekly Dystopia: Is it feasible these protests will result in any reform in China's autocratic regime, including the deposition of Xi Jinping as some of the protesters are demanding?
Kevin Slaten: In the immediate term, that seems unlikely. The party-state has a formidable repression apparatus that extends down into the neighborhood level. It has honed this system over decades and already put it into action over the weekend. But overthrowing Xi Jinping or the one-party state is not really the common demand of these protests. People want freedom from draconian lockdowns and overbearing social controls. A more immediate dilemma for the Communist Party is whether loosening restrictions would acknowledge the effectiveness of grassroots collective action, thereby signaling to citizens that they possess this power. One thing is for certain: until stringent Covid controls are revised, we are likely we continue observing grassroots protests against these policies in China, even if they don’t look the same as this recent movement.
Weekly Dystopia: How are these protesters similar or different from the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in terms of theme or motivation?
Kevin Slaten: At this point, while there are some participants challenging central leadership, this movement and the protests proceeding it are quite different from the 2019 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. They have grown out of different contexts and grievances, and as a result they have different demands — so far.
Weekly Dystopia: Has the U.S. government response been appropriate? (Editor’s Note: The White House has issued a statement on the demonstrations, which has been criticized as tepid for not endorsing the motivation behind them for political reform.)
Kevin Slaten: Foreign governments, the U.S. included, should speak out in support of fundamental rights to assembly and free expression. More important is solidarity with Chinese citizens from civil societies around the world.
With the China protests and Beijing’s response visible to the entire world, here's a sampling of related news stories, including new approaches to China taken by the U.S. government:
COMMERCE SECRETARY LAYS OUT NEW RULES FOR U.S.-CHINA TRADE: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo gave a speech Wednesday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spelling out human rights and national security will now be greater factors in trade with China.
From Politico Pro:
“China today poses a set of growing challenges to our national security. That is a fact. It's deploying its military in ways that undermine the security of our allies and our partners and the free flow of global trade,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo said her remarks were the result of months of consultations with President Joe Biden and other members of his administration.
Raimondo, recently profiled in The New York Times and mentioned as a possible 2024 Democratic presidential nominee, has risen in prominence in recent months amid her efforts to restructure the superconductor industry and develop more of the essential tech product within U.S. borders. Those efforts take place in the context of a global shortage during the coronavirus epidemic and the possibility of China cutting off the global supply by invading Taiwan, a chief producer of semiconductors.
FCC FACES ISSUES IN ELIMINATING CHINA TECH FROM U.S. NETWORKS: The Federal Communications Commission told a major step last week in banning the sale of equipment from China-based companies deemed a national security threat, but the going won't be so easy, according to a report in CyberScoop.
But gear from the targeted Chinese tech giants Huawei, ZTE, Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua is so deeply embedded within the American telecom and networking landscape, it’ll take years and billions of dollars to effectively eliminate any risk that these companies pose.
While the FCC order is latest in a series of moves that Washington has made to reduce China’s influence, experts say it remains underfunded and offers no clear plan to help telecoms replace existing Chinese parts or find more affordable alternatives.
“We will not see the full effects of it for years to come,” said Jack Corrigan, a research analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, who has studied state and local government purchases of Chinese tech.
U.S. TO CHINA: STOP SUPPLYING FENTANYL PRODUCTION IN MEXICO: As the opioid crisis has brought devastation to large swaths of the United States, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns urged Beijing this week to halt the reported supply of raw material to Mexico used by cartels to manufacture fentanyl and send it across the border into the United States.
From Politico's China Watcher:
“We’re trying to work with the government of China here to say please crack down on those illicit Chinese firms and help us to deal with this major problem in the United States,” Burns said in a video presentation from Beijing at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs event on Tuesday. Beijing has consistently denied any role of Chinese firms in illicit opioid production in Mexico.
It's not just the U.S. government putting more pressure on China. The U.K. appears willing to curtail its ties with China dramatically...
RISHI SUNAK: 'GOLDEN ERA' OF U.K.-CHINA RELATIONS IS NO MORE: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in his first foreign policy speech in his new role, declared the "golden era" of ties between the United Kingdom and China is over, according to a report in the BBC.
In choice words, Sunak said the United Kingdom was "naive" in its approach to China in the previous decade, while at the same time he warned against "Cold War rhetoric," the BBC reports:
Mr Sunak told the audience of business leaders and foreign policy experts that, in the face of the protests, China had "chosen to crack down further, including by assaulting a BBC journalist".
"We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism," he said.
Some context: The United Kingdom in 2015, to the consternation of many in the United States, joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was seen as a competing entity to the World Bank. But the United Kingdom's approach to China appears to have become cautious in recent years. In 2020, Britain issued an order effectively banning Huawei equipment from the U.K.'s 5G public networks. Sunak's speech this week is consistent with that turnabout seen in recent years.
UYGHUR MUSLIMS IN EXILE TELL THEIR STORY: National Geographic has a detailed feature article on Uyghur Muslims now loving in exile in Turkey after fleeing human rights abuses from China, which has reportedly been sending the religious minority to work camps.
National Geographic leads with a powerful depiction of a graduation ceremony for Uyghur students away from their homeland:
Hebibullah Küseni, the school’s pious, goateed dean, begins an address through a loudspeaker, reminding the children that they have learned their mother tongue, along with science, religion, and Uyghur literature. He speaks about the flag, too—how the star and crescent symbolize Islam and the blue their ethnic identity
“One day, we will raise this flag in our homeland,” Küseni says. “Are you ready?”
“Yes!” the children reply in unison, placing their right hands to their chests as the East Turkestan anthem “March of Salvation” plays. In Xinjiang that would also be illegal. Then the students crowd into an assembly hall where a carpeted stage, backed by lilac drapes and an arch of white flowers, has been arranged in front of rows of plastic chairs.
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