The popular uprisings taking place all over China, which are spontaneous and without leadership or definite ideology (even democratic), are in no way specifically Chinese; rather, they illustrate the limits of all authoritarian regimes in all civilizations. We can classify these limits according to a few universal principles that can now be applied to China, as they were to past fascist regimes and to the Soviet Union.
The first is the requirement that the regime never admit mistakes. In China, as in all tyrannies, the opposition does not exist, by definition: the leader is always right—that is, the Party cannot err. These dictatorships are theological, of the order of the sacred. In the past, dogma required the suppression of private property, the banishment of all religion, and the suppression of minority cultures. Now, in China, it is health policy that is elevated to the rank of truth as revealed by the leader, and therefore beyond discussion, irreversible. Xi Jinping can’t admit his mistake with Zero Covid; on the contrary, he can only strengthen the commitment to his policy. But Zero Covid, apart from the popular anger that it provokes and the economic recession that it has caused, cannot succeed: the less the Chinese are vaccinated (with a vaccine that is not very effective, but Chinese), and the more they are isolated, the more vulnerable they are made by the absence of antibodies that would resist the virus. Zero Covid can only perpetuate Covid. Having banished criticism and self-criticism, the regime becomes the prisoner of its illogic, to the point of absurdity. There is no way out. Either it prolongs its strategy, and thus weakens China for several years, until the illness becomes endemic and tolerable, like a bad flu; or it abandons the strategy and lets the disease ravage the country, since few are well-protected. At this stage, no apparent middle way exists, and so the Chinese seem condemned to still more confinements, to the incitation of more revolts, and, in the end, to more repression.
This reveals a second principle common to authoritarian regimes: their basis is fear. Too often, we in the West want to believe that the Chinese adhere voluntarily to the Communist regime because it affords them a certain degree of prosperity. Doubtless, this makes tyranny more bearable. But many Western observers also saw Maoism, which spread poverty and sometimes famine, as being popular in China. The real key to the Communist Party’s power is not economic progress, but fear—and if it fails to inspire fear, the regime must vanish. When, in the USSR in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, the army, and the KGB ceased to inspire fear, the people rose up and the system collapsed. Chinese leaders have analyzed the fall of Communism in Europe in minute detail, and they have drawn its lesson: in order to perpetuate their power, they must always inspire fear—or indeed heighten fear by an ever-tighter control of the population. The Covid confinement, the technology of facial recognition, and the imprisonment of Muslims in labor camps are the latest refinements of the method of terror: everyone knows that he or she is under surveillance, and everyone knows that the regime can punish any deviation.
Will the certain failure of the Zero Covid strategy, along with the economic stagnation that it produces and the continuing popular rebellions, motivate Xi to “reform” the system, to ease up on the pressure? Certainly not. Another thing the Chinese leaders have learned from the fall of the USSR is that the public will perceive any reform as an admission of weakness. Tocqueville in his day wrote, concerning the French Revolution, that an authoritarian regime is never so fragile as at the moment that it considers reform; this was true for absolute monarchy, for Gorbachev’s Russia, and it would be true if Xi admitted his mistakes. One might object that Xi’s predecessor Deng Xiaoping restored land to the peasants and authorized private enterprises in 1979. But Deng, unlike Xi, enjoyed the legitimacy of a founder, alongside Mao Zedong and the popular Republic. In any case, we should recall the limits of Deng’s reformism: when the students of Beijing demanded democracy in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, they were crushed, by his order.
Xi, for his part, is ultimately an apparatchik at the mercy of a palace revolution within the Communist Party—a not-unlikely outcome of the Zero Covid impasse. It is probable that popular revolts will spread, but the progressive liberalization of the regime or a full revolution are less likely. Totalitarian regimes never evolve. They fall all at once, rotten from the inside and subject to quarrels among leaders. Or they may fall from losing a war, which could happen in China, should it undertake a failed landing in Taiwan. But revolution? It is unthinkable, given that opposition leaders are tightly controlled, killed, or imprisoned, as was Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
I will not venture to sketch a long-term scenario of the Covid crisis or of the failure of Zero Covid policy. But in the short term, the repression of local uprisings will become still more severe; the Communist Party does not tolerate disorder. Moreover, the Chinese people hate disorder, which reminds them of the horrible civil wars of the twentieth century; these wars, with their long train of massacres, ceased only with the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1972. There can be no doubt that Xi will exploit this anxiety—and on this matter, he will have majority support.
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