'Danger and temptation’: China’s ‘zero-COVID’ protests present Biden with new challenge

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U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON — “I write this letter with a heavy heart” began the communique President George H. W. Bush sent to Chinese President Deng Xiaoping on June 20, 1989, two weeks after the massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Some in Washington wanted Bush to sanction Beijing for its brutal methods, but the president wanted to ease tensions, not heighten them. “We must not let this important relationship suffer further,” Bush wrote to his Chinese counterpart. “Please help me keep it strong.”

Among the many critics of Bush’s approach was then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who called for a more aggressive response that included rescinding China’s status as a most-favored trading partner, which would have been a devastating blow. In a 1991 speech from the Senate floor, Biden argued that “the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease” the Communist Party that had ruled China for a half a century.

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to the recent violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way. Thousands of students demonstrated for democracy in Tiananmen Square. Hundreds died when the government sent in troops. (Jeff Widener/AP)

Now, Biden is in a position not entirely unlike the one Bush faced after Tiananmen. Recent countrywide protests against Beijing’s heavy-handed “zero-COVID” policies — rolling lockdowns, prisonlike quarantine testing, endless testing, ubiquitous QR codes — seem to present an opportunity for the president to reaffirm support for greater freedom. But doing so could alienate the government of President Xi Jinping when Washington is desperate to maintain a working relationship.

“We are watching this very closely,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during a Friday press briefing when pressed by Yahoo News. As turmoil persists in China over the coronavirus and other matters (the economy and Taiwan, above all), the question is if the Biden administration should do more to support the protesters, for whom the onerous coronavirus restrictions are but a symbol — albeit a very real one — of a society where a web of surveillance measures has heavily curbed personal freedoms.

“I see a lot of danger and temptation,” said China expert Lyle Goldstein of Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank.

The protests stem from growing public resistance to the Xi administration’s “zero-COVID” approach, which has included three years of deprivation, unpredictability, isolation and hardship. Though people across China had been growing restive for months, the recent protest began after a fire in late November killed 10 people in the city of Urumqi, where lockdown measures had led to sealing off exit routes. Pandemic restrictions meant that it took firefighters two hours to reach the blaze.

People hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of the coronavirus disease continue in Beijing, China, November 27, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
People in Beijing hold white sheets of paper in protest COVID restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Children have died from lack of medical attention. In January, a woman in Xi’an suffered a miscarriage because a hospital would not admit her without a negative COVID test — though she had tested negative four hours before. In Shanghai, a dog was beaten to death after its owner tested positive. In Xiamen, authorities administered coronavirus tests to pond fish.

During lockdowns in Shanghai, drones flew around apartment blocks, booming out a message to residents: “Control the soul’s desire for freedom.”

Now that desire has burst into the open. November’s protests appear to have rattled Xi, who has just secured a third term as China’s leader, cementing his place in the Communist Party firmament. Just weeks later, he was facing calls to resign. Nor is the virus his sole problem. China’s housing market is beginning to crater; the economy is not growing as robustly as had been hoped.

But to change course now would be to admit error. “The health care challenge they’ve conceptualized for themselves hasn’t shifted. I don’t think the policy, as a whole, will go away anywhere soon,” said Manoj Kewalramani, an India-based China expert and author of “Smokeless War: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance.”

Just as in the United States, the coronavirus appears to have exposed latent social and political tensions. Even if authorities manage to suppress protests in the coming days, there is little doubt that those tensions will remain, presenting Xi with an ongoing challenge.

“China’s Struggle With Covid Is Just Beginning” said the telling headline of a New York Times guest essay by Yanzhong Huang, a U.S.-based expert in Chinese health policy.

Beijing has made tweaks to its zero-COVID policy in recent days, but lifting lockdowns could have risks of its own, especially in a country with low vaccination rates. Nor can the Communist Party simply dispense with a complex biosecurity regime it has argued is a public health necessity. Pressure will be especially high on local officials, who have been blamed for being heavy-handed. Now they could also face criticism from Beijing if infection and hospitalizations begin to rise.

Police officers block Wulumuqi street, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, in the area where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Police officers block Wulumuqi street, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, in Shanghai. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

The upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations will present an entirely new challenge come late January.

“This matters so much more than any other issue,” China analyst Isaac Stone Fish told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. Some even think that the protests could be, as the Chinese proverb goes, a spark to start a prairie fire, toppling a communist regime that only weeks ago appeared impregnable.

In a potentially significant coincidence, the protests began right after the death of Jiang Zemin, who led China in the 1990s and was seen as a relatively liberal figure. Shows of mourning for Jiang could merge with the anti-lockdown protests, some of which have included calls for Xi to step down, presenting a truly unpredictable dynamic. In 1989, it was the death of reformist Hu Yaobang that sparked the protests that culminated in the killings at Tiananmen.

In his speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress in October, Xi celebrated the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts.” But the recent protests quickly laid bare the degree to which the laobaixing — that is, ordinary people without apartments in Shanghai skyscrapers, without children at Ivy League schools or without connections to powerful officials in Beijing — are suffering.

In Washington, the anti-lockdown protests have presented a fresh challenge to the Biden administration, which is not only funding Ukraine’s resistance to Russia but also watching the ongoing protests in Iran where — as in China — a once-unshakable government suddenly finds itself embattled.

Now the White House is faced with a crisis that has engulfed its primary geopolitical foe, mere weeks after President Biden met with Xi, whom he has known for decades. During their meeting, which took place on the sidelines of G20, a summit of the world’s 20 largest economies, Biden promised to vigorously compete with China economically — but to also keep that competition from lapsing into military conflict, especially when it comes to the contested island of Taiwan.

A temporarily installed camera points at a door to an apartment building where residents are under lockdown as outbreaks of COVID-19 continue in Beijing.
A temporarily installed camera points at a door to an apartment building where residents are under lockdown as outbreaks of COVID-19 continue in Beijing. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

“I don't think the U.S. should compromise. We cannot compromise our principles,” Chinese dissident Jianli Yang, who participated in the Tiananmen protests and now lives in Washington, D.C., told Yahoo News.

“At the same time, we have to be realistic.”

So far, the protests have only deepened the administration’s conviction that moral clarity on universal human rights can be voiced without fostering a charged ideological confrontation with Beijing. “You have to hold both of those things,” a senior White House official told Yahoo News, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Defense analyst Goldstein agrees. “Overt shows of sympathy are not helpful,” he said, praising Biden’s cautious approach as “quite wise,” since it deprives Beijing of an opportunity to turn the U.S. into a scapegoat for troubles of its own making. During the 2019 democracy protests in Hong Kong, China accused the United States of exercising a “black hand” to foment anti-Beijing sentiment. The American flags brandished by pro-democracy demonstrators, Goldstein said, were “like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

Yet taking a middle path is also bound to cause frustration of its own, for both hawks and doves in the foreign policy establishment.

“From China to Iran to Ukraine, it’s clear that people are fed up with dictators and demand freedom,” Uriel Epshtein, executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative, told Yahoo News in a text message. “Bravery is contagious, and whether it comes from Iranian and Chinese protesters or from Ukrainian freedom fighters, I hope the U.S. government catches some.”

But what does bravery look like in confronting an insular nuclear superpower that has long bristled at lectures from the West on human rights and territorial sovereignty?

A demonstrator in Tokyo holds a placard during a solidarity protest against China's COVID-19 lockdowns.
A demonstrator in Tokyo holds a placard during a solidarity protest against China's COVID-19 lockdowns. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

“Let it be. Let things evolve on their own,” said Kewalramani, who told Yahoo News that he believes no argument against zero-COVID proffered by Western governments is as powerful as the ire many Chinese feel toward their own leader. “Their failures have mobilized their population more than anything anyone else could have done.”

Xi is thus caught in a bind that is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon — and is far more likely to increase the pressure on him and his small coterie of advisers. “Premature easing of policy could lead to an outbreak of infection and deaths, especially in a population that remains under-vaccinated and that has had relatively little exposure to the COVID pandemic,” argues China expert George Magnus of Oxford. “Repressive lockdowns, on the other hand, will surely fuel further unrest.”

For all the depredations zero-COVID has wrought, the argument in favor of treating the coronavirus with deliberate seriousness is not without merit. More than a million people in the United States have died from COVID-19, and while the official Chinese figure of about 5,000 pandemic fatalities is almost certainly inaccurate, the restrictive lockdowns have doubtlessly saved lives in a country that skews demographically toward the elderly.

Not unlike Russia, China sees Western criticisms as fundamentally hypocritical, not motivated by concerns for human rights but by the desire to weaken a formidable geopolitical foe.

BOSTON, UNITED STATES- DECEMBER 2: President Joe Biden boards Air Force One ahead of a departure from Boston Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts on November 2nd, 2022 (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
President Biden boards Air Force One ahead of a departure from Boston Logan International Airport. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A similar dynamic could develop if the U.S. endorses the anti-lockdown protests.

“There are already signs that the PRC is charging that the U.S. is behind the protests, which is nonsense, but it underscores why the U.S. should not be out front as cheerleader for the protester,” said China expert Bonnie S. Glaser of the German Marshall Fund, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.

Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was questioned during a press briefing about the assault of a BBC journalist who was covering protests in Shanghai. The journalist, Edward Lawrence, was “beaten and kicked by the police,” the BBC said.

Zhao was not especially contrite.

“I also have some questions for the U.K.,” he replied. “First, how does the British government handle domestic protesters? In 2020, the U.K. police arrested more than 150 people when Londoners took to the street to protest against COVID lockdown.”

Zhao then enumerated other protests that had been suppressed by British authorities. He could have just as easily made similar claims about how the United States responded in 2020 to anti-lockdown and social justice protests. In both cases, law enforcement agencies were accused of excesses.

Subverting another nation’s public health response would seem to be well out of bounds of American foreign policy. Still, the images from China cannot be ignored, especially by an administration that has sought to restore the role of the U.S. as a global force for good.

Protesters in Hong Kong hold up blank white papers during a commemoration for victims of the Urumqi fire.
Protesters in Hong Kong hold up blank white papers during a commemoration for victims of the Urumqi fire. (Kanis Leung/AP)

The scenes of brave Chinese protesters facing off against a government with the most sophisticated surveillance tools in the world, and virtually no accountability, fit with almost painful accuracy into Biden’s framework. Authorities in Beijing have even censored footage of the World Cup, now taking place in Qatar, so that Chinese citizens are not agitated by the sight of soccer stadiums filled with thousands of maskless fans.

The Biden administration has been cautious, confident that it can “universalize” its pro-democracy message, the senior White House official explained, without unduly offending Xi.

“Our message to peaceful protesters around the world is the same and consistent: People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with,” National Security Council spokesman Kirby said last Monday, as images of the protests dominated cable news and social media.

State power is exercised so ruthlessly on ordinary Chinese people that there is little doubt that the Communist Party will ultimately prevail. Supporting protesters today could result in frayed Washington-Beijing relations tomorrow.

“I don’t think the protests are going to sustain," said China analyst Isaac Stone Fish. But, he adds, failing to bolster the protests as they are taking place could have consequences in the future, if Beijing concludes that Washington is afraid of confrontation. “The weaker we appear, the easier it will be to be walked over.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping holds talks with Charles Michel, the visiting president of the European Council, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping holds talks with Charles Michel, the visiting president of the European Council, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Zhang Ling/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Conservatives have charged Biden with a weak foreign policy — despite his administration devoting billions to support Ukraine in repelling the Kremlin — and they have called for a broader confrontation.

“Congress and the White House should give clear and unequivocal moral support to the protesters,” said Steve Yates, a China expert at the conservative America First Policy Institute, in a statement. “The White House should announce strategic decoupling from China in which we deepen the previous administration’s efforts to end our dependence on China.”

But most experts believe that such a move would be a grave mistake, allowing Xi to deflect some of the blame directed his way toward the United States.

“Chinese are angry with other Chinese,” Goldstein of Defense Priorities said. “Honestly, that’s best for all involved — and for the bipartisan relationship.” He said that the best option for the United States may be an unsatisfying one: to simply sit back and wait.