Fill in the blanks

Published December 7, 2022
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

A REPRESSIVE regime organises a managed election. It is taken aback when the polling stations stay empty. Then, at exactly 4pm, voters pour out of their homes. Voting times are extended to accommodate the rush. The regime is relieved until officials start tallying the votes. It turns out that 70 per cent of the ballot papers are blank.

That’s the stage-setting premise of Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago’s superb 2004 satirical novel Seeing. I was reminded of it by the recent demonstrations in China, where some of the protesters held up blank pieces of paper. They were inspired by a tactic deployed in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, but some of them traced its provenance to a Soviet-era joke about a man who is taken into custody for handing out blank leaflets in a public square. When he protests his innocence, he is informed: “We all know what you meant to say.”

The latest wave of public expressions of dissent — not huge by any means, but still fairly widespread, its scale unprecedented during Xi Jinping’s decade in power — was triggered by a tragedy. The death of 10 people in a fire in high-rise residential block in Urumqi, the locked-down capital of Xinjiang, was attributed to escape routes being blocked and firefighters being delayed by Covid-19 restrictions.

Such restrictions are a thing of the past almost everywhere else in the world. By many criteria, China’s Covid-zero strategy could hardly be adjudged a failure. Given its population, the number of fatalities has been relatively tiny — one-hundredth of the death toll in India, for instance. And China’s initial response to the virus was impressive, as makeshift hospitals sprang up in Wuhan, and the state efficiently met the basic needs of families in lockdown. China was also the first major country to relax restrictions.

There’s more to the anger in China than Covid rules.

But its subsequent strategy of clamping down hard whenever even a single infection was detected has backfired. The omicron variant, it could be argued, has outwitted the authorities. The Shanghai lockdown earlier this year was an overkill, with many residents complaining of starvation. More than half a billion people are estimated to have been in lockdown in late November. And the obligation to provide fresh evidence of testing negative each time you access public transport or enter a supermarket was absurd.

Some of the more onerous restrictions have lately been relaxed, albeit in a haphazard manner. Suddenly abandoning Covid-zero could potentially unleash a wave of infections and deaths. China has thus far rejected the idea of importing western mRNA vaccines from the West, and vaccination levels among the elderly are anyhow unsatisfactory.

In the Chinese popular imagination, all recent policies are directly associated with ‘Uncle Xi’, portrayed in the official media as the font of all wisdom. There are plenty of hints that the pent-up fury of at least some of those who have mustered the courage to protest in public goes far deeper than Covid-related frustrations. The economic downturn of recent years — related largely but not wholly to the pandemic — has thrown tens of millions out of work or clouded their prospects of prosperity.

China’s post-Mao social contract entailed participating in the opportunities opened up by an economic renaissance while accepting the limits of political freedom. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 spelt out how the latter might be enforced. The restrictions on political and social discourse were nonetheless more lax until Xi stepped in. The tolerance of dissent has declined in the past decade. Small wonder that the demise last week of Jiang Zemin, the post-Tiananmen Communist Party leader, provided some scope on Chinese social media for nostalgia combined with indirect criticism of the incumbent leader.

That feeds into the mounting evidence that there’s much more to the public frustration than Covid-related restrictions, which includes occasional slogans directly aimed at the leader. The most notable, of course, was the banner unfurled by a brave soul on a Beijing bridge on the eve of the 20th party congress in October which extended Xi’s term. It read: “We want to eat, not do coronavirus tests; reform, not the Cultural Revolution. We want freedom, not lockdowns; elections, not rulers. We want dignity, not lies. Be citizens, not enslaved people.”

Such sentiments would no doubt be echoed if the ubiquitous sheets of paper weren’t blank. Many of the protesters might be placated by reopening measures, but there are deeper resentments bubbling under the surface. There is almost certainly no immediate threat to the regime, but its carrot-and-stick response to the sporadic unrest indicates a realisation that excessive repression could backfire.

Meanwhile, more than one report cites an instance of a man in Beijing warning protesters against “foreign influences”, spontaneously eliciting a mocking retort: “Do you mean Marx and Engels? Is it Stalin? Is it Lenin?”

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2022

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