In an extraordinarily courageous show of anger, thousands of people have taken to the streets of multiple Chinese cities to protest President Xi Jinping‘s repressive COVID regime. Holding up white pieces of paper, the protesters draw attention to their restrained rights of free speech and assembly.
Unfortunately, if predictably, the Biden administration has responded with deafening silence thus far. In an absurd skating of the central issue, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing issued a statement warning Americans in China that “People’s Republic of China (PRC) authorities have expanded COVID-19 prevention restrictions and control measures as outbreaks occur.”
This is truly pathetic, the equivalent of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, issuing a statement describing Russia’s ferocious missile campaign as “possibly hazardous to walking outside.” Even avowedly neutral Switzerland has gone further than the United States in response to these protests, saying it “reiterates the high value it places on freedom of opinion.”
President Joe Biden’s weakness is not what the international community and oppressed people around the world expect from the U.S. — or at least not what they should expect. The Biden administration should be speaking plainly. It should observe that these protests reflect genuine, deep, and popular concerns on the part of the Chinese people. The administration should demand that Chinese authorities respect the basic human rights of their citizens as well as foreign citizens in China, such as the BBC journalist who was attacked and temporarily detained by Chinese police in Shanghai.
Still, it’s clear why so many Chinese are so willing to make their voices heard even at the risk of being “disappeared” by Xi’s regime.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, Xi’s regime has adopted a stridently authoritarian “zero-COVID” strategy to control the virus’s spread. As with its unabashed refusal to allow a serious international investigation into the origins of the virus in Wuhan, the Chinese Communist Party has shown no regard for the rights of its citizens. This lack of regard underlines the lie offered by pro-lockdown commentators who claim Beijing’s strict COVID lockdowns are designed to protect human dignity and life.
Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen Beijing treat its citizens in a truly foul fashion. Countless images, videos, and stories testify to what being locked down in China actually entails, which is to say gulag-like conditions in which utterly innocent people are literally dragged away from their families and then denied food, water, medicine, sanitary products, and the most basic necessities of life — except, of course, if you’re one of the lucky CCP elites: They get a free pass to party at high-end restaurants.
Xi is unrepentant. Having made “zero COVID” an extension of his credibility, he is unwilling to do what a democratically elected leader might do in his place: change course in recognition of his policy’s failure. Instead, Xi pushes on in the belief that the ultimate risk is not doing harm to his people but rather to his perceived supremacy as the new Mao Zedong.
That cuts to the central issue. The CCP is not the servant of the people but rather their captor. Reflecting as much, China’s vast domestic security apparatus will be able to restrain these protests in the short term. But as Chinese citizens continue to witness the relative oppression they face, the ingredients of this protest movement will only grow in scale and potency. Making matters worse for Xi and his CCP apparatchiks, China’s economic malaise and looming demographic crisis mean very few Chinese can expect their lives to improve over the coming decades. That coming reality risks imploding the CCP’s long-standing implied agreement with the people: its access to unquestioned power in return for sustained improvements to living standards.
Put simply, Xi has a problem amid his people’s suffering. The least the leader of the free world should be doing is addressing it.