Protests in China: Not Just About Covid

China is currently experiencing the most significant wave of unrest since the labour strikes of the early 2010s, if not since Tiananmen Square. A number of factors are at play here. The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October already elicited symbolic protest in the form of banner drops which were then circulated online. These expressed widely felt frustrations with the rule of Xi Jinping and the Zero-Covid strategy that China has adopted to fight the virus. However, it was only a sign of things to come as anger and discontent soon spread onto the streets.

15 November: Guangzhou Protests

Guangzhou was put under lockdown on 5 November in response to the worst Covid outbreak in the city since the pandemic began. On 15 November, the first clashes erupted, with crowds toppling barriers meant to confine them to their homes. It appears that migrant textile workers, who have been unable to make a living amid the lockdown due to travel restriction, were at the heart of the unrest. Complaints about food shortages and skyrocketing prices, as well as unsubstantiated rumours that Covid cases are being artificially inflated in order to boost profits of testing companies, also seem to have played a role.(1) After riot police were deployed, the situation seemed to have stabilised.

23 November: Foxconn Protests

The Foxconn factory, as Chinese capital in general, has for years been troubled by low profitability and rising costs of labour. The need to maintain production, even in the face of a highly contagious virus, intensified labour discipline in an already dystopian workplace.(2) When Covid cases in Zhengzhou began to rise in early October, Foxconn effectively locked workers in their factory under a so-called “closed-loop” system. Workers were forced to live and work on-site, take regular PCR tests, and could not leave their facilities even for meals. This did not prevent a Covid outbreak within the factory walls and soon isolation sites were overfilled. By late October, workers began to flee the factory en masse, despite attempts by security to stop them. To deal with the arising labour shortage, Foxconn introduced attendance bonuses and ran a successful recruitment campaign in early November. Very soon however the new recruits found reality did not meet their expectations: bonus payments were delayed, and those who tested positive for Covid were not being isolated leading to further infections. This is what led to protests and clashes with security forces on 23 November.(3) Foxconn quickly responded by offering the new recruits 10,000 yuan ($1,400) to quit their jobs altogether, while the government put the whole of Zhengzhou in lockdown to prevent further disorder.

24 November: Ürümqi Protests

Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uyghur ethnic group, has been in lockdown since August. On 24 November a fire broke out at a residential high-rise in Ürümqi, the capital of the region. The fire was reportedly caused by a fault in an electric socket extension, it took three hours to extinguish and 10 people died as a result. On social media the death toll was widely blamed on Covid regulations making it difficult for people to leave the building (similar criticisms of Covid regulations causing more deaths than actual Covid were already voiced two months earlier, when 27 people died in a Covid quarantine bus crash in Guizhou). The authorities denied there was any truth to these claims, but a comment from the head of the fire department, that “some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak”, added fuel to the flames. Protests began to spread across Western China, with calls for an end to the Zero-Covid strategy. Ürümqi authorities have already announced they will ease the lockdown to calm down the situation.(4)

What Next?

At the time of writing, unrest appears to be spreading all across China. Videos are emerging of protestors destroying PCR testing-booths in Lanzhou, of students at Peking University singing the Internationale, while on the streets of Shanghai the political demand for the CCP and Xi Jinping to step down has been raised. We know what happens next: both the stick and the carrot, repressions and concessions, will be used to quell further dissent. Likely lockdowns will be tactically introduced and lifted. Though it will be difficult for the government to make an immediate volte-face, considering China's Covid infections are currently hitting record highs.

Above all, it is important to point out that the protests in China are not just about Covid. We are bound to see various interpretations of these events from various quarters, but the underlying issues here are universal to the world of work: precarious working conditions, oppressive labour discipline, and unsafe living conditions. As we said from the beginning of the pandemic, the state is not a neutral body but an instrument for the oppression of one class by another, so it should come as no surprise that measures of social control introduced at times of emergency can also be used to quell working class dissent when necessary. Yet how the ruling class has chosen to manage the pandemic is only one piece of the puzzle. What forms the bigger picture is the division of society into classes, where the many have to work in order to survive, while the few profit.

It is too early to say what direction the current protests will take, if they do not exhaust themselves in the immediate term. We can only repeat: unless the working class emerges as an independent social force, with its own political perspectives that go beyond reformist demands (in this case free elections or an end to Zero-Covid strategies), capitalist factions with their own interests will step in and take advantage of the situation. As we wrote back in 2019:

The way forward in China, as elsewhere, remains working class autonomy and a communist programme. The former has to be defended against those who would wish to see it dissolved (state actors, NGOs, trade unions), the latter has to be revived by the more class conscious elements of society who reflect on the lessons of the past (and ultimately unite in an internationalist political organisation). This is by no means easy, but with economic growth in China at its slowest pace in nearly three decades and crippled by debt, and the spectre of international war and climate crisis putting the lives of millions at risk, it becomes more imperative by the day. If and when the Chinese working class takes up the mantle of mass class struggle again, and realises the lessons of its own historical memory, the world’s ruling classes may well tremble again.(5)

Communist Workers’ Organisation
27 November 2022








Monday, November 28, 2022