Protests against forced confinement and the government spread across China after a fire killed 10 people in Urumqi.
By Marcos Margarido
The fire started on the 15th floor of a building in the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s far west. The region is the scene of independence struggles by the Uighurs, who prefer to call it East Turkestan or Uyghuristan. The delay by the fire brigade in putting out the fire was likely caused by the numerous barriers installed in the streets to control the passage of people in regions under confinement due to the COVID pandemic, and also to the possibility that the victims were locked in their homes.
Despite official denials, such comments flooded social media and residents took to the city streets to protest, which then reached major cities like Shanghai and Beijing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After nearly three years of restrictions, the experience of being quarantined at home, with doors locked or even welded shut, and building emergency exits blocked, is common to many people across the country.
Over the weekend of 26-27 November, thousands gathered with candles and flowers to pay tribute to the fire victims at sites set up as altars, which were advertised on social media, often covertly to try to foil the police crackdown, such as the question, “Is anyone planning to go out for a walk later?” In universities, students organized vigils where they held pieces of white paper as a protest against the lack of the right to speech and freedom of the press. This was also a way of identifying whether the people gathered were protesters or police in plain clothes.
From Shanghai to Beijing
The protests hit several cities, such as Korla and Urumqi (Xinjiang), Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province (west of the country), Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province (east), Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province (east, southeast of Shanghai), Wuhan, capital of Hubei province (central China), Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province (southwest), Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province (southeast China), Shanghai, autonomously administered municipality (population 25 million, the most populous in the country, to the east) and Beijing, capital of the country (northeast).
Shanghai was probably the city where the protests were most politically radicalized. While the protesters’ slogans revolved around the restrictions due to the pandemic policy, such as “No to PCR tests, we want freedom” or “No to health codes,” the demonstrators went further in Shanghai and called for the Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping, to step down.
The vigil on Urumqi Road, named after the city where the fire occurred, turned into a protest by hundreds of people chanting “Out!” after someone shouted “Xi Jinping!”
In other cities, such as Wuhan, where the pandemic originated in late 2019, hundreds broke down the barriers that had been put up to prevent people from moving around during lockdowns.
At Tsinghua University in northwest Beijing, where students have been banned from leaving for weeks due to Covid restrictions, the demonstration demanded “Democracy and rule of law” and “Freedom of expression.” To prevent the protests from escalating, the University administration announced that it would offer free air and rail travel for students to go home for the Lunar New Year holiday, but with great anticipation as the holiday will be on January 22, 2023.
A protest also took place in Beijing on Sunday night, but smaller, with about 100 people gathering to light candles and hold sheets of white paper.
As of Monday the 28th, the government had yet to comment on the protests. These revolts are happening just a month after the 20th Communist Party of China Congress, which guaranteed Xi Jinping the continuation of his dictatorial power, which had already lasted 10 years. There, he appointed people of his absolute confidence to key party posts.
During his two terms in office, Jinping arrested dissidents, put businessmen accused of corruption in jail, censored social media, and banned the operation of independent human rights groups. But above all, he has identified and eliminated, in various ways, the leaders of protests by workers, peasants, and other professionals, who were fighting against delayed payments, the loss of jobs, or the loss of land.
As always happens when there are mass demonstrations in China, the police observe and photograph everyone they consider to be leaders, the surveillance bodies track and censor social networks to identify possible organizers, delete photos and footage of the protests to then exercise selective repression, in silence, where the people affected never go on trial for any misconduct, even hypothetical.
The great doubt, including that of the government, is whether the demonstrations will continue. After all, the pandemic cannot be repressed by the police force. If the restrictions continue, and infections and deaths increase, the pent-up anger against the bureaucratic and dictatorial policy of combating COVID (based on confinements without any discussion with the population; on denunciations of neighbors, supposedly with the disease, by party members; on closing down local businesses, without any financial compensation to small owners) may lead to new and wider demonstrations.
But the policy to fight the pandemic is not the only reason for the protests. The effects of this policy, like the bankruptcy of small businesses, lay-offs, and lack of food, are combined with the reduction of economic growth deepened by the restrictive measures in place, including in the technology sector, generating mass lay-offs, and late payments. China is witnessing all the evils of an economic crisis in a capitalist country, under the government of a dictatorship of a party that is communist in name only.
The economic crisis and the pandemic
In most countries, the pandemic caused a reduction in economic growth. In China, it was no different. After a fall in GDP to 2.2% in 2020, there was strong growth in 2021 to 8.1% only to register another fall in growth to 3.2% in 2022. The real numbers may be even lower due to the sharp drop in economic activity in the last quarter of the year, which has not yet been calculated.
In fact, the GDP growth to 8.1% was just a breath of fresh air in the midst of a general downward trend of the GDP that had already been occurring before the start of the pandemic, caused mainly by the reduction of investment in the productive economy (all investment went to the financial market), due to the fall in profitability in the so-called real economy.
China, for example, went from growth rates of 10% on average for a whole decade, reaching 14.2% in 2007, to experiencing growth below 7% from 2015 on. Although well above the world average, this number is insufficient to sustain the needs of the Chinese economy based on direct foreign investment and intensive exports.
Only the so-called big tech sector (high-tech companies, such as the 5 biggest: Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple) has had sustained growth these last few years. They, too, are now also facing an economic crisis, still inexplicable for bourgeois economists. There has been a 50% drop in profitability in the last 5 years, a 30% drop in the NASDAQ stock market in the last year, and the laying off of over 45,000 workers in this period. Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft alone have together lost $2 trillion in market value in the last year.
This situation also affects China, whose high-tech sector is made up mainly of transnationals, such as those mentioned above, which relocate their production to take advantage of the lower price of the Chinese workforce. This sector is promoting layoffs due to the fall in production, something unthinkable a few years ago. But it is, simultaneously, and with the collaboration of the government, increasing the working pace for those who remain employed, even during the constraints of the pandemic.
The Chinese government has come up with a simple solution to the problem. When an infection is detected in a factory, it is subjected to confinement, with all employees inside and forbidden to leave the premises, including the infected, who continue working normally.
This is what happened at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, Henan province, a few weeks before the reported protests.
Rebellion at Foxconn
The following is an account based on the China Labour Bulletin website (clb.org.hk). Rising cases of COVID in Zhengzhou (population 12.5 million, central China), where the Foxconn factory is based, prompted the company to enforce a lockdown on October 13, with all employees forbidden to leave except for their dormitories, which are in the factory premises. The aim was to maintain the iPhone 14 production in this peak production period.
Tests were conducted repeatedly, but even infected employees were forced to continue working. The workers express a desire to leave the factory from October 28 on but are unable to use public transport due to confinement restrictions. In fact, they were held in a private prison, in a situation analogous to slavery. Even so, thousands decided to escape on foot, helped by workers from nearby farms.
After the escape, Foxconn announced the gradual resumption of production (and also a delay in the delivery of orders). For this, the company promised to pay a daily bonus of 400 yuan for those who stay, and a bonus of 15,000 yuan for those who do not miss work during November. The Henan government approved the measures and launched a recruitment campaign. Attracted by the bonuses, about 100,000 workers apply.
However, the policy of forced confinement and infected workers on duty continued, and the bonus payment did not happen as promised, prompting workers to revolt on November 23. Footage was taken showing workers clashing with police wearing white protective clothes, who fire tear gas grenades and water cannons, and promote physical repression, causing injuries and making arrests.
To put an end to the protests, the factory promised compensation of 10,000 yuan for those who resign.
This is the way used by the capitalist government of China to support the production of the transnationals at any cost, that is, at the cost of deaths, illnesses, and imprisonment of workers. Of course, the one that really calls the shots, Apple, made a statement. Amid protests, lay-offs, infections, forced labor, repression, etc., it declared that it would “ensure both worker health and safe production.” Cheekiness knows no bounds.
The protests and China’s future
The Chinese dictatorship’s policy of fighting the pandemic is at a crossroads. If it continues with the current orientation, it will certainly increase the anger of the population who, like the Foxconn workers, are held in private prisons in their own homes.
If restrictions are reduced, there will be a dizzying increase in the number of cases in a country where vaccination is not obligatory and the hospital system cannot support a rate of infected people similar to that which occurred in Brazil, for example, which caused more than 600,000 deaths. Let’s remember that China’s population is around 1.3 billion inhabitants, six times the size of the Brazilian population. The non-mandatory nature of vaccination in China is an inexplicable policy from any angle, except that of absolute contempt for the population.
Added to this crossroads is the reduction in economic activity, with the possibility of a significant economic crisis. These two issues combined, if magnified, could lead the country into a recession, the first major one since the restoration of capitalism in China.
This shows that even the most entrenched dictatorship, whose supporters – spread all over the world in the shape of the Stalinist and Castro-Chavista parties – boast about their power to control the economy, yet cannot tame the cyclical crises of the capitalist system. And much less will it be able to control the action of the most numerous working class in the world when it decides that the final hour of these billionaires disguised as communists has arrived.