There comes a time when autocrats and their tired regimes become a focal point of disgust and derision by the people being controlled. A time when the masses of people say there must be something better, or at least conditions not as oppressive and numbing to the soul. Everyone desires freedom, even if their entire life has existed under a footprint on their brow, as the human spirit knows what it needs.
This morning the first news story I heard from NPR was the reports of protesters who have staged significant marches by gathering in at least eight major cities in China to bring loud and burly attention to the strict anti-Covid measures that have been enacted for months. The protests this weekend erupted after a fire broke out Thursday and killed at least 10 people in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi with the concern being registered by the populace about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other restrictions.
That aspect of the protests was not what stunned me as they have been brewing and simmering within China for some time. Rather what took me aback was the protestors calling out China’s leader and telling him to resign and even calling for an end to one-party rule. In a video of the protest in Shanghai, verified by the Associated Press, chants against Xi, the most powerful leader since at least the 1980s, can be heard without equivocation. “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” While I know the Iranian women who are bravely protesting their own backward and male-dominated government are absolutely profiles in courage, I must place the courageous ones calling for a direct challenge to the ruling Chinese Communist Party on the same par.
History long shows that there comes a time when people just strike out at the nut that has long been in place and when the shell seems more brittle than once assumed there is an attempt by the eager people to make for a larger crack and then more and more until the shell is removed. I was one of those hopeful for a sea change with the Arab Spring in 2011 when a series of countries made an uplifting challenge to the ruling governments by calling for democracy as they envisioned it, human rights, and religious tolerance. The fight is always uphill in such cases and the failure of Egypt’s short-lived experiment in democracy, for example, is a classic example.
Every nation has its own dynamics at play and there are no playbooks that guarantee any degree of success for such movements. Given China has a bloodthirsty desire for not only power but also revenge for those who cross it means that no one can pretend the current protests and tongue-lashing of Xi Jinping will have much short-term impact.
But that does not take away the feeling of some hope at the fringes with the simmering discontent in China at not only repressive state policy but an economy that is stagnating. What is now happening does plant new seeds for continued rebellion in the near future. That is the main worry for autocrats. That is why they bluster so and turn to tanks and guns. That is all they have and while that power is often overwhelming and the factor that prevails for the time being, there is one very important thing a bullet can not stop.
Once the yearning for freedom is tapped into and vented if only slightly, it does not then slink backward and stay dormant. It continues in new ways and grows among more people. It was reported today that protesters spoke out about the ‘must never talk about topic’ of the 1989 bloody and violent government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. Those protests decades ago are surely part of the energy and forerunners of what erupted today in cities across China. What follows is likely to be harsher crackdowns and repression for protestors as the Covid restrictions ease. But what concerns an autocrat late at night is the protestors who want a taste for more freedom of expression and concrete changes. And are willing to make their case even under a repressive regime. Tick, tock, tick……