Tension Grows Between the CCP and the Chinese People

Tension Grows Between the CCP and the Chinese People
A policeman (C) wearing protective clothing reacts in an area where barriers are being placed to close off streets around a locked-down neighborhood in Shanghai, China, on March 15, 2022. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
Joseph Cheng

During the era of China's economic reform and opening up to the world under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese people accepted the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) rule. The principal reason was that the Chinese leadership secured its legitimacy through economic growth.

People’s living standards improved substantially, and they expected further improvements ahead. Hence they did not challenge the regime, as they understood that the price of doing so was high.

Under the Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao administration, Beijing introduced a social security net, providing a basic living standard to the people, in an attempt to reduce the dissatisfaction with the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Authorities at the grassroots level also tried to quell public unrest. Meanwhile, the CCP leaders appealed for nationalism, enhancing their legitimacy by strengthening China’s international status and influence.

The Chinese leaders know the importance of maintaining stability; the expenditure for this purpose exceeds that spent on national defense, demonstrating their awareness of the serious causes of instability and dissatisfaction. The rich and powerful, as well as the affluent middle class, all send their families and assets to Western countries; historically, there has been no other country with such a high proportion of its elites sending their families and wealth abroad.

Some years ago, an academic article published by the China Journal exposed this phenomenon. It highlighted a group of middle-class mothers in Shanghai quietly exchanging information on safe food products to protect their children’s health better. They lacked confidence in the authorities but still showed no intention to challenge the regime, preferring to hold onto their existing vested interests.

Shanghai's recent “humanitarian tragedy” may have disrupted the apparent stability. The authorities’ unreasonable COVID measures have triggered resistance from the community as the CCP cadres have violated the red line of the people. An ordinary mother would not normally criticize and challenge the regime. Still, when the authorities took away her COVID-infected child, she reacted fiercely.
A six-minute video clip called “The Voice of April,” released on April 22, is now widely circulated on the internet. It shows the difficulties encountered by the Shanghai residents during the lockdown. The inconveniences suffered by people amid pandemic lockdowns were seen worldwide, and many countries have been slow to ease their restrictions. But the severity of the measures in China is unprecedented. Why does China continue to implement harsh measures rather than loosen them like other countries? Is Beijing's "zero-COVID" approach reasonable and based on science? Do they align with the people’s interests?

Shanghai residents increasingly believe that their problems are caused by the stubbornness of their leaders, who are mainly concerned about their authority and prestige and neglect the people’s interests. Hence the public protested.

On April 21, students in Fudan University gathered to protest; the authorities entered the campus and cut off internet communications. Political rumors indicate that Beijing saw this as the largest student-led protest since the Tiananmen Square massacre and demanded strict handling of the incident.

In fact, all types of protest activities took place. The municipal government imposed lockdowns on buildings and surrounded them with wire fences guarded by security personnel, leading to conflicts with the residents. Anti-lockdown posters appeared everywhere. When the Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang patrolled the streets, he was met with strong condemnation. Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, who arrived in Shanghai to oversee the "zero-COVID" campaign, avoided the crowd and filmed her publicity materials on a rooftop. Grassroots cadres could not handle the people’s complaints and lost their credibility.

The panic recently spread to Hangzhou city and the Chaoyang district in Beijing. People rushed to supermarkets to stock up on food and daily necessities, emptying the shelves. Local officials’ assurances had no impact. Local COVID measures also generated chaos, with truck drivers being the first to be adversely affected. This means that supplies would be short, and consumer prices would go up, exacerbating people’s worries.

Yet Chinese leaders have not adjusted their policies. Liang Wannian, head of the COVID response expert team of the National Health Commission, publicly stated on April 22 that China does not have the necessary conditions to ease its COVID restrictions. A new plan will be implemented in Shanghai to increase its COVID isolation facilities as residents are transferred to neighboring provinces. The food shortage problem has yet to be resolved.

Pandemics are natural disasters. But the subsequent humanitarian tragedies have led to resistance from the people. Tension runs high between the CCP and the people, and maintaining stability will be increasingly difficult. People do not easily forget.
Joseph Yu-shek Cheng is a retired professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. He publishes widely on the political developments in China and Hong Kong, Chinese foreign policy, and development in southern China. He has been an activist serving the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong for four decades. In his retirement, he continues to work as a current affairs commentator and columnist. Email: josephcheng6@gmail.com