China faces biggest uprising in decades as police turn to violence

China: Victor Gao discusses Covid protesters

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Protests in China this week have reached a scale not seen for decades as people across the country show their discontent with Beijing’s strict COVID-19 lockdown measures, with demonstrations seen in major cities including Shanghai and the capital Beijing. The sudden spike in dissent against the ruling Chinese Communist Party comes after a fire in Urumqi, a city in the Xinjiang region, saw at least 10 killed. The blaze erupted in an apartment building where people were unable to escape and firefighters were delayed due to lockdown rules.

Prior to this, frustration had been brewing amongst the Chinese population as, while the rest of the world moves on, many Chinese regions remain under lockdown three years after the pandemic started. This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping has even been criticised personally, with protestors calling for him to resign.

In China, criticism of the Communist Party and the President is rarely tolerated, and a harsh response from security forces is often expected. As the BBC reports, the Chinese police have already started detaining protestors, and some fear that law enforcement will only toughen its approach.

One of the main reasons that large protests are so rare in China is because of the country’s history of state-backed brutality, used to quash opposition.

The most famous example of this was the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 – known in mainland China as the June Fourth Incident. At the time, student-led protests had started calling for democratic reform as the government in Beijing came under fire for corruption.

Anger had been simmering since 1976. After the death of dictator Mao Zedong, China’s new leader – Dao Xiaoping – began privatising production in industries such as agriculture. However, he ensured that party allies benefited from this, giving them advantages in the markets. Beijing set up a new market-based pricing system, but u-turned on it within weeks, causing chaos.

Inflation soared, angering the population and provoking protests. China’s leaders responded violently. On June 3 and 4, Chinese forces moved towards Tiananmen Square, opening fire on unarmed demonstrators. Others were arrested while some were crushed by vehicles.

The death toll remains unknown, but UK documents released in 2017 suggest some 10,000 protestors were killed. Beijing immediately set about covering up what had happened at Tiananmen Square, using propaganda to claim the massacre never happened. 

Even today, any mention of the massacre remains taboo in China. As a result, the younger generations have little awareness of what happened in 1989.

While the events at Tiananmen Square were especially violent, recent years have caused concern that such a tragedy could occur again. In 2019 and 2020, protests in Hong Kong – a Chinese ‘special administration’ with widespread calls for autonomy – saw security forces unleash brutal crackdowns on demonstrators. 

Hong Kong residents previously demonstrated in 2014 and again in 2017 against Beijing’s interference in the territory’s affairs.

Then, in 2019, Amnesty International produced a report that said Hong Kong’s police showed a pattern of “deploying reckless and indiscriminate tactics”. They found evidence that arrested protestors were tortured in detention.

One notable example of police misconduct came in September 2020 when footage emerged of Hong Kong police tackling a 12-year-old girl to the ground. Another came a year before this in September 2019. A 21-year-old man was left in critical condition after being shot in the stomach by police.

Just days before these incidents, a protestor died after falling from a car park as police tried to disperse protestors.

Professor Kerry Brown, an expert on China from King’s College London, told that while the Hong Kong police is a separate entity from law enforcement in mainland China, the brutality arose from a fear of reprisals from Beijing.

He said: “In Hong Kong, it was dealt with by Hong Kong’s security services. The political control is from Beijing but they answer to the chief executive of the Hong Kong special administrative region. They are meant to be autonomous but the political control is from Beijing.

“It arose from the nervousness of instability and things spinning out of control. This is a country that in living memory has been fragmented and overwhelmed by civil war, there was a civil war in the 1940s. That’s where it springs from. They are driven by this powerful fear which makes them respond in a seriously regressive way.”

Prior to Xi’s presidency, the Chinese state had also shown a willingness to settle disputes in a more cordial way. In 2011, protests erupted in Wukan, part of the Guangdong region of southeast China after officials sold land to real estate developers without suitably compensating the locals in the area.

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In response, the locals forced the local government and Chinese Communist Party representatives there out of the village. The dispute was eventually settled with an agreement that abided by the villager’s requests.

Professor Brown says this outlines the varied ways in which China has dealt with protests in the past. He said: “In the past, it has been a mixture. The Wukan uprising in Guangdong in 2011 was a big uprising. The government used a much more conciliatory approach, trying to negotiate. And that worked out at the time. But on other occasions, they have used more forceful methods.”

He added that he believed the ongoing protests in China will likely be met with force. “Is this going to lead to widespread repression? Usually, the security forces take quite a heavy response because they are terrified of things getting out of control, because heads would roll in their system,” he said. 

“There’s been plenty of evidence of brutal treatment, including against a BBC camerman. That’s because these security people panic sometimes. I don’t think it’s because they go out of their way to be as unpleasant as possible, some of them do, but the majority are just in incredibly high-octane situations where things get out of control.

“The likelihood is the security forces will just be told to deal with this. Pacify things in whatever way they can. Some will try to negotiate, others will use more violent methods. The more violent methods seem to be prevailing at the moment.”

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