Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has carefully crafted an image of himself as a big-picture visionary, tasked with turning China into the world’s preeminent superpower. While Xi has focused on taking over the world, however, the average Chinese citizen appears increasingly frustrated with his inability to provide competent government functions like adequate education and health care.
The result has been a wave of unprecedented public protests against Xi’s party, which has promised to bring all of China into a “new era” as a “moderately prosperous society.” From angry parents whose children received faulty vaccinations to Maoists outraged that a communist government would stand in the way of worker unionization, the outrage is coming from communities that Beijing once considered safely tamed, not the typical crowd of political dissidents and human rights activists.
Within the past week, Xi’s regime has had to contend with two major protests – one by parents in Leiyang, Hunan, who hurled bricks at police when they found out they were going to be forced to pay for private schooling because of a lack of government resources – and a protest that wasn’t in Shenzhen, Guangdong, where police arrested and broke up a coalition of Maoist students uniting in defense of laborers’ union rights.
The regime has issued little coverage in state media to these protests. Instead, once again, instead of covering the concerns of Chinese people, it has turned to its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) colonization project, inviting African heads of state to a lavish banquet and announcing $60 billion in debt relief for African countries, money that could have gone into Chinese infrastructure, health care, or education.
Xi has moved not only to silence concerns about the logistics of how government programs run, but to censor escapist entertainment media and replace it with Communist Party propaganda, embittering the populace even further. Last year, the Communist Party banned rap music from television after the reality TV show The Rap of China, a show that does not in any way promote the greatness of Xi Jinping, became a breakthrough hit. “Patriotic” hip-hop was excepted from the ban.
The protests began, however, with Winnie the Pooh.
Before Chinese people with no known ties to dissident movements began protesting on the streets, they began complaining online, posting their opinions on sites like Sina Weibo, the most prominent social media outlet in the country, or WeChat, an instant messaging service. While often not meant as direct criticism of any policy, users began comparing the portly Xi to the beloved literary bear, posting side-by-side comparisons of images of Xi and Pooh. In one particularly embarrassing comparison, one user placed a photo of Pooh and his lanky pal Tigger next to an image of Xi standing next to former President Barack Obama.
Xi’s regime responded to the phenomenon by banning it. The ban has gone so far that, in August, reports circulated that the nation had banned the distribution of a new Winnie the Pooh film Disney produced in the United States, despite not having any relation to the Xi meme.
The light-hearted Pooh joke was replaced by outright dissent rapidly in early 2018, when Xi announced that he would repeal term limits for the presidency (Xi is the “president” of China as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of the Communist Party, the former being the least powerful title he holds). Many Chinese were not impressed with the power grab, launching a torrent of criticism on social media. In response, censors were forced to delete any instance of the phrases “re-election,” “proclaiming oneself an emperor,” “I don’t agree,” and, of course, “Winnie the Pooh.”
Chinese internet users were already outraged with Xi for his inability to eradicate poverty, which he had promised to do, before they found out they would likely be dealing with a lifetime of his rule. In January, a month before the term limit ruling, a photo went viral on Chinese social media of Wang Fuman, a young boy in Yunnan province so poor he was forced to walk nearly three miles to school every day, in the dead of winter. Wang arrived at school literally frozen on a daily basis, garnering him the nickname “Ice Boy.”
— The Straits Times (@STcom) March 8, 2018
Chinese social media users began describing Wang as a “left behind child,” complaining that Beijing was too busy with its grandiose international plans to provide for even the most basic needs of its own poor.
“China has a lot of kids like this,” one user noted.
“Ice Boy” was the precursor to the outrage surrounding the Changsheng Biotech vaccine scandal, which erupted in the summer. Changsheng, the second-largest manufacturer of vaccines in the country, was caught deliberately using expired materials to make vaccines for rabies, tetanus, and other diseases. The use of expired materials renders the vaccines useless, meaning the children who received them are functionally unvaccinated. About 500,000 children fit this description at press time, though investigations are ongoing. Along with the discovery that the government Wuhan Institute of Biological Products company also sold faulty vaccines, Chinese parents have faced the revelation that nearly one million children are going to school unvaccinated.
The torrent of online criticism spilled into the streets. Parents surrounded government buildings in Beijing for days demanding justice and a functional healthcare system, shocking law enforcement. Rather that step back and let the Communist Party silence the grassroots, some in the elite have been emboldened to take shots at Xi.
The loudest and boldest criticism of Xi’s handling of domestic affairs was published by the Unirule Institute of Economics, an independent think tank in Beijing, and written by Xu Zhangrun, a professor at Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University.
“People nationwide, including the entire bureaucratic elite, feel once more lost in uncertainty about the direction of the country and about their own personal security, and the rising anxiety has spread into a degree of panic throughout society,” Xu wrote.
Academics in China are typically restricted to commenting favorably on government policies for state-run media outlets. Xu’s remarks were a challenge so direct that it has made many question how tight a grip Xi actually has on the country.
As the South China Morning Post noted in August:
[A]nger and discontent have brewed and spread as many enterprising citizens raced against fast-fingered government censors to circulate comments and articles blasting the government’s clumsy handling of a vaccine crisis and express rising concerns about a variety of issues: the handling of the trade war with the United States and its negative impact on the Chinese economy; the over-the-top propaganda drive on China’s economic and scientific achievements and Xi’s personality cult; about China giving billions of US dollars to poor African countries at the expense of its domestic needs; about the falling currency and stock markets … the list goes on.
When parents in Leiyang found out Xi’s government couldn’t provide a decent education, either, they went one step further than organizing publicly – throwing bricks, bottles, and firecrackers at police.
Xi’s regime cannot even count on hardcore communists to support it anymore. Last week, police conducted raids on two Maoist websites to keep them from publishing news on the government push to end calls for unionizing at the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen. While nominally communist, the Chinese government allows for flagrant abuses of workers at corporations that enrich Xi and his cronies, a policy increasingly irritating Maoist idealists.
“The younger generation of leftists are becoming openly involved in the workers’ movement, and stand in open opposition to the police,” activist Cai Chongguo told media shortly following the arrests involving the Jasic factory. “They are also backed up by the older generation of leftists and Maoists.”
When not silencing Maoists, Xi is forcing the Chinese to adopt his interpretation of “traditional Chinese culture,” which comes at the expense of the nation’s most popular television, music, and literature. Online fiction writers have been co-opted to write pro-Xi propaganda; only “patriotic” hip-hop is allowed. Xi ordered censors to strictly “reject the vulgar, the base and the kitsch” in a special meeting in August.
Even this comparatively small push to control the Chinese psyche has failed. The aforementioned program The Rap of China has returned for a second season on the streaming service iQiyi, its stars banned from television airwaves. It is so popular that American rap artists Migos have signed on as mentors to the competitors.
While the Chinese appetite for unapproved entertainment grows, China’s middle and lower classes grow more outraged by the collapse of their government, the protests grow louder, and “One Belt, One Road” has done little to drown them out. Censorship will likely exacerbate, as well, but the challenge of silencing not only dissidents and religious dissenters, but typically apolitical citizens and even radical Marxists at the same time will prove a significant challenge for Xi, whose eyes hesitate to turn back home from his global plans.