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How Dissent Grows in China

The protests of recent weeks carry an echo, and a warning, from the Maoist era.

By Jiayang Fan

December 7, 2022

During the spring of 1976, a million people gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, ostensibly to mark the passing of a beloved premier, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s lifelong comrade-in-arms. On April 4th, Tomb-Sweeping Day, an annual rite of mourning, the mourners laid wreaths, banners, placards, and flowers at the Monument to the People’s Heroes for Zhou, who—in stark contrast to Mao and to the Cultural Revolution, which had plunged the nation into a decade-long state of terror and chaos—was widely considered a voice of moderation and reason. But, on the morning of April 5th, mourners returned to find that their tributes had been removed by the police. As grief turned to anger, more than a hundred thousand protesters descended on the square, and the government quickly moved in to quash the uprising. The incident became regarded as the first grassroots challenge to the Communist regime, and a precursor to the huge, era-defining pro-democracy protests that arose in Tiananmen Square thirteen years later.

In China, public homage to the dead often serves as a method of last resort to exert pressure on the living. The demonstrations currently sweeping through cities across China also began as an act of commemoration, following the deaths of at least ten people, four of them children, in a fire in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Ürümqi, where residents had been under a covid lockdown for more than three months. “Many connect China’s covid protest to 1989, but a more apt comparison is 1976,” Yasheng Huang, a China scholar at M.I.T., told me. At their heart is not as much defiance as desperation.

Local, single-issue protests are not unusual in China, but large decentralized outbreaks that cross boundaries of class and geography almost always end up becoming referendums on the government. Half a century ago, the tributes to Zhou occurred not only in Beijing but in many of the same cities where demonstrations have recently been taking place, from Guangzhou to Shanghai and Wuhan. To the alarm of the leadership in 1976, both the poorest peasants and cadres from the People’s Liberation Army turned out to pay their respects. The latest protests have drawn from a similarly broad swath of society, as students and workers alike have gathered to express their grief and outrage. Chen Jun, a native of Shanghai now living in this country, told me that such spontaneous eruptions of mass emotion are destabilizing for the leadership. Born in 1958, Chen played a prominent role organizing campaigns that directly led to the student protests in the nineteen-eighties; before entering university, he founded the magazine Voice of Democracy, and became a primary target of state surveillance. When the government cracked down on political publications, two of the student editors, who succeeded his tenure, received fifteen-year sentences. “Ordinary Chinese understand better than anyone the risks of public dissent,” Chen said. “Grievances have to be so dire that they have to feel like there is almost no other option. The Chinese term that comes to mind is ren wu ke ren: to tolerate until the conditions become truly intolerable.”

For the past decade in China, under Xi Jinping, the wheel of history seems to be spinning in reverse. “Since Xi’s rule, Chinese society has been regressing to Maoist-era levels of fear and repression, so it’s no wonder that it feels like 1976,” Chen told me. Mao’s cult of personality had elevated him to a figure of mythic proportions. But, by 1976, the catastrophic consequences of both the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, his expedited attempt to turn China’s agrarian economy into a modern industrial one through sheer force of will, were all but impossible to ignore. The economy was in shambles and resentment was festering, even when it couldn’t find an immediate outlet.

“Zero covid,” the signature policy of Xi’s increasingly autocratic rule, reflects Mao’s famous slogan from the Great Leap Forward: “People must conquer nature.” In an echo of Mao, Xi declared a “people’s war” on the coronavirus in 2020. Relentless testing and state-enforced quarantines did keep infection rates low, and Xi’s policy seemed as much a proof of his political invincibility as it was a strategy of managing covid. But, three years into the pandemic, as the population continued to endure paralyzing lockdowns, there appeared to be no end to the policy in sight.

“You can’t force people to live in a permanent state of war, just as you can’t subject them to the unending chaos of revolution,” a former student activist who had been in Tiananmen Square and who asked to be identified only by the initials J.L., told me. J.L. came to the United States in 1990, when he was in his early twenties. He described a comparatively vibrant environment in the China of the nineteen-eighties, before the crackdown, after Deng Xiaoping had initiated economic reforms, when lively discussions about political pluralism and democratic reform took place on college campuses across the country; there was curiosity about the outside world and there were opportunities to explore it. A number of newspapers began to cover social problems openly, and the leadership expressed at least some willingness to listen. “We had high expectations for government action then,” J.L. said. “There was tremendous hope for the future of China.”

The idealism of that period differs noticeably from the mood among Chinese youths today. This past Tuesday, about a hundred students at Harvard, many of them Chinese nationals, gathered to show solidarity with the protests in China. A graduate student in his late twenties, who asked to be identified by his Telegram name, DuiDuiDui—which means “YesYesYes,” a sarcastic reference to the way that Beijing has further cracked down on dissent in recent days—told me in a voice hoarse from chanting that, despite his anger with the government, he knew to manage his expectations for change. “We are operating under the assumption that Xi is not going to go away, and neither is the C.C.P.,” he said. Part of this attitude owed to his uncertainty as to whether the abdication of the Communist Party would necessarily be a good thing. “I can’t imagine what would happen the day after that, so right now I think every compromise is a win. Lifting some censorship would be good, for example.” He added that his father had taken part in the Tiananmen protests in 1989, but that he was now a Party member who, by and large, agreed with China’s current political direction. “I want to be practical and rational,” he said. “Not just to dream idle dreams.”

Another graduate student at the protest, who goes by the name of WhitePaper, expressed similar reservations about regime change, stressing the importance of pragmatism: “When my parents in China found out that I was attending a protest here, they said again and again that there’s a cruelty to the C.C.P. regime that I can’t imagine, and that I must consider all the risks.” He had tried to recruit an older Chinese national at the university to come to the rally, but the man had declined. “This protest isn’t going to work,” he had said. “It won’t bring about change.” WhitePaper told me that there is also “a common refrain among some Chinese of my generation that politics are just not relevant or important. They are cautioned not to get involved, because they can never fully know the truth of someone else’s motivations, but will instead only be used as a pawn in someone’s agenda.”

When I relayed these sentiments to the protest leaders of the earlier generation I had spoken with, they weren’t surprised. “I think it has a lot to do with the revisionist history and practice of indoctrination in the Chinese educational system,” J.L. said. After 1989, the state launched the Patriotic Education Campaign, which featured stories of revolutionary martyrs who had sacrificed themselves for Communist China, to reflect the Party’s vision of itself as the only champion of Chinese interests and the savior of the Chinese people. That effort has gone a long way toward instilling nationalism and fusing the survival of the Party with the fate of the country. If the openness of the eighties bred a tacit willingness for more freedom, Xi’s encroaching control over the society has forced people to make do with less of it. It’s the boiling-frog syndrome as a method of governance, Chen Jun said. “If you drop a frog in boiling water, it will leap out. But if you put the frog into a pot of cool water and slowly bring the water to a boil, it might not notice that it is being slowly cooked to death.”

The last time I had heard the example of the boiling frog, I was in Hong Kong, reporting on the pro-democracy protests that engulfed that city in the summer of 2019, in response to a draconian new security law issued from Beijing. J.L., who spends part of the year in the city, thinks that imposing the law likely boosted Xi’s confidence. “The fact that he neutered a place as accustomed to autonomy as Hong Kong is perceived as proof that hard-line tactics work,” he said. The rise of surveillance technology across China—a digital dictatorship with Chinese characteristics—has also made the organization and coördination of dissent more difficult. Unsurprisingly, since the recent protests began, the police have conducted phone inspections to check for banned apps and to identify protesters.

Yet the events of April, 1976, show that an unprecedented and fast-moving situation can present an opportunity for missteps on the part of the leadership. The decision to remove the tributes to Zhou had been taken by politburo members before direction consultation with Mao, presumably with the intention of both not worrying the leader, who was eighty-two and ailing, and of preëmpting his displeasure—something that would have been of more urgent concern than assuaging the masses. But, once Mao learned of the growing protests, his directives about how to proceed were far from clear. At first, he authorized the use of “necessary force, but not firearms or combat troops” to disperse the crowds. Later, when asked for clarification, he further muddled the matter, by saying, “A gentleman uses his mouth to persuade, but also his fists.” The equivocation may have been a self-protective measure to deflect blame, in case things went awry, but such ambiguity has been known to spark unintended consequences.

If no other leader until Xi has mirrored Mao’s obsession with absolute power and loyalty, it almost certainly has to do with the fact that no other leader has exuded such palpable concern for the faltering legitimacy of the Communist Party. Nearly three years after Xi launched his “zero covid” campaign, infection rates in China (though still low, compared with other countries) hit a record high this past week, the economy is faltering, and youth unemployment is climbing. In an authoritarian regime, the balance between appeasement and repression is an imprecise science at the best of times. In moments of high tension, the tendency is to favor short-term mollification over long-term coherence. This week, seemingly in response to the protests, the government rolled back some covid restrictions, but the move was likely an unplanned acceleration of an arduous transition. Given China’s underpreparedness in the vaccination of the elderly, and the arrival of the winter flu season, the country is facing increasingly complicated and intersecting crises. If local officials are put in the position of interpreting Xi’s signals, they may be forced to make ad-hoc decisions, and, when public confidence and patience are wearing thin, there is little margin for error.

In September, 1976, five months after the crisis in Tiananmen Square, Mao died. Within two years, the country had by and large abandoned Maoist fanaticism in favor of market-oriented reforms. In retrospect, the dissent on display in 1976 played a large part in bringing about policies that gave rise to greater openness in the decade that followed. “Protests are not linear, and no one protest can neatly map onto another,” Wu’er Kaixi, one of the principal leaders of the Tiananmen protests in 1989, told me. The significance of an event often does not become apparent until it is contextualized much later. “Still, it is always much harder to start one than to keep it going,” he noted. “For the first time, people see written on posters and placards what has been secretly buried in their hearts. That is meaningful in a way that can’t be readily measured.”

Over the weekend, WhitePaper, the Harvard grad student, sent me a photo that he had taken of the protest. Even though the event was held outdoors, almost everyone wore masks, and some also wore sunglasses, largely to protect their identity. “In this climate, and even here in the U.S., you never know who is watching and what they will report back,” he said. In the center of the photo was a woman holding flowers and a handwritten sign that reads “In the midst of rain and storm, hold fast to freedom.” WhitePaper recognized the phrase as the lyrics to a popular Cantonese song from a few decades back. The words “really capture our current situation. We are under this storm of political absurdity and oppression,” he told me. “The power of the storm is definitely stronger than individual people, just like the power of the regime is stronger than individual people.”

The woman in the picture is small and wears an oversized hood, and “she is shielding her face with the sign, kind of hiding behind the sign,” WhitePaper noted. Her image contrasts sharply with those in so many Chinese textbooks depicting Communist martyrs fearlessly fighting for the survival of the Party. “She certainly comes across as a bit timid,” he said. She has the posture of someone who wasn’t trying to be a hero, “yet she holds tightly the sign and the flowers.”


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