China: anti-lockdown protests light powder keg of fury

Barely a month after the CCP’s pompous 20th Party Congress, anger from below is bursting to the surface. Last week, the Foxconn mega-factory in Zhengzhou, Henan saw a violent confrontation between workers and the police over wage theft by management, and in the past two days, large and violent protests have been reported in many major cities, targeting the regime’s draconian lockdown measures, which have become a focal point for widespread discontent. As we have long predicted, the deep crisis of Chinese capitalism is beginning to spur the masses into action.

Flight then fight in Foxconn

The workers at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, Henan were the first to move. This mega-factory assembles the bulk of the global output of Foxconn, the producer of 70 percent of the world’s iPhones. For this mammoth operation, the mega-factory houses over 130,000 workers, who live on site.

The factory, which was awarded the ‘Workers’ Vanguard’ award by the CCP regime’s All-China Federations of Trade Unions in 2021, is in reality a brutally exploitative hellscape for its workers. By late October, tens of thousands of workers had already fled the site on foot, fearing that the site would be subjected to a brutal lockdown as a result of an outbreak of COVID-19 that management’s reckless lack of protection measures had allowed to break out. Now, the workers in the very same factory are rising up against a clear case of wage theft.

Workers had signed contracts promising bonuses of 3,000 RMB (416.77 USD) for 30 days work, with an additional 3,000 RMB for a further 30 days. But soon, many found that Foxconn had changed the dates such that no worker would receive their first bonus until well after 60 days of work. Many workers were enraged by this, as they were saving up for the Lunar New Year holiday in early 2023.

By 22 November, enraged workers gathered to protest against management’s act of theft. They were met with the violence of the factory’s security forces, to which they responded with a valiant fightback. As the factory’s own security personnel were rapidly overwhelmed, local CCP authorities deployed police to the factory to join the crackdown.

But such was the scale and ferocity of the workers’ protest, that the Henan government had to mobilise over 20 truckloads of police from the nearby cities of Luoyuang, Kaifeng, Zhumadian, and Xuchang.

Despite this, the workers remained defiant against state security, who were armed with riot shields, tear gas, and water cannons. Street fighting persisted throughout the factory, even as more police were being mobilised. In the end, the factory management relented and promised to issue 10,000 RMB for any worker who was willing to leave the site immediately.

News of the struggle rapidly spread throughout China. The movement of the Foxconn workers has shown that it is possible to fight, in defiance of the regime, and to win concessions. This has inspired a wider layer of the masses to come out openly against the regime’s draconian lockdown measures themselves. All this, once again, exposes the real essence of the CCP regime as a guardian of Chinese capitalism at the expense of the working class.

Rising up against lockdowns

Initially, the CCP regime’s rigid measures contained the COVID-19 virus better than its western counterparts. But as we have explained before, maintaining a ‘Zero COVID’ elimination strategy in a single country is unsustainable. China cannot completely cut itself off from the rest of the world, and the emergence of more contagious mutations of the virus makes new breakouts inevitable.

The Chinese masses have had to endure a heavy price in terms of harsh lockdown measures, massively disrupting daily lives and leading to job losses. The regime has extended such measures far longer than other countries. Now it has tried to change direction somewhat, but the bureaucratic character of the regime has meant that this is only aggravating the suffering of the masses..

Following the 20th Congress, the regime relaxed the quarantine rules for foreign visitors from 7 days to 5 days. But as it continued to give orders to local bureaucrats that they must continue maintaining a Zero COVID policy.

And as the cases of COVID-19 started rising as travel restrictions were eased, local bureaucrats – following diktats from on high to keep cases at zero – responded with new rounds of ever-more draconian and frantic lockdowns, reproducing ever-greater disruption in the lives of the masses. The bureaucracy expected the masses to simply comply with their orders. Little did they understand that the masses had reached the end of their tether.

Something has snapped among the masses. In Urumqi, Xinjiang’s provincial capital, a fire in an apartment block that caused over 10 deaths (though many have said it could be as high as 44) was the catalyst for an outpouring of rage. In its aftermath, many have pointed the finger at neighbourhood lockdown measures by the state for causing severe delays to rescue operations, leading to many unnecessary deaths.

This was too much for the masses, who rapidly went from complaining about the tragedy online to taking to the streets en masse. As in many previous mass upsurges, the protests began with a few outraged individuals taking a great personal risk by calling for defiance. Then, as more people joined in, the common outrage coalesced into a courageous and determined mass. Hundreds and potentially thousands spontaneously marched in the streets, defying the lockdown measures, and descending upon the city hall in protest.

The avalanche of fury across the internet was so widespread that it proved too much even for the massive apparatus of censorship the regime has at its disposal. It failed to contain the initial movement. Everywhere, people are now finding the courage to join in. Within a few days, protest vigils mourning the victims of the Urumqi fire spontaneously spread far and wide across major cities in China. Most of the protesters are completely new to politics or any act of protest, and many of them live-streamed their activities, rendering censorship difficult.

In particular, the holding of a white piece of paper aloft has become a symbol of many of these protests: an ironic jab at the regime for forbidding all protest slogans copied from the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

Thus far, protests ranging from mass gatherings to the dismantling of lockdown barricades have been reported in Nanjing, Chongqing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, and Beijing.

[This article was written on 27 November. At the time of publication, it seems that most of the crowds have now dispersed and the police are entrenching in many places. Events are developing very quickly, and it remains to be seen how the movement will develop in the coming hours and days.]

The youth have mobilised energetically. As of now, there are 79 universities across 15 provinces that have witnessed mass protests by students, 14 of which are in the capital Beijing.

In Nanjing, there have been large night-time gatherings of students, specifically at the Nanjing University School of Journalism. Students were heard singing the Chinese national anthem and the Internationale, and openly defying lockdown restrictions. The gatherings were so large that the school rector came out in an attempt to convince the students to disperse. He went as far as promising that, should the students leave, everything could be treated as if nothing has happened. Of course, the students know very well that this is a blatant lie, and stuck to their guns.

Similar campus gatherings were reported in Beijing. Tsinghua University reportedly saw up to 1,000 students protesting during the day.

Outside the campuses, ordinary citizens also marched in the streets, shouting: “We don’t want PCRs, we want to eat. We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom.” This slogan was originally raised by a lone wolf protester who hung up a large banner in Beijing ahead of the 20th CCP Party Congress. Although he was quickly arrested, his slogan obviously resonated with many people. Throughout the day, protesters either gathered at Sitong Bridge where the banner was unfurled a few weeks ago, or they met at Liangma river to continue their vigil. Throughout the night, the singing of the Internationale could be heard.

In Shanghai, crowds of people gathered around a road named the Urumqi Road to host a vigil, only to be dispersed or arrested by the police. More people then gathered at the very same place the next day.

Police fortifying the intersection in Shanghai that became the rallying point of the protests Image fair usePolice fortifying the intersection in Shanghai that became the rallying point of the protests / Image: fair use

The situation is developing rapidly, but in terms of scale and breadth, the present struggle is already making a mark in history as the largest in the past 30 years.

Rebellion in the air

Marxists fully support the masses’ struggle against the draconian lockdown imposed by the CCP, which at the end of the day is conducting a policy aimed at maintaining its own dictatorial power. Xi has staked his reputation on the success of the rigid lockdown policy. He needs to be seen as the powerful man at the top who can protect the Chinese people, as this would give him the authority he needs to weather the coming economic and social storm.

The regime also faces the problem that its Sinovac vaccine lacks the effectiveness of western vaccines. This is in large part due to the technological protectionism of the West in withholding mRNA technology. But the regime itself has refused to buy more effective vaccines from western pharmaceutical companies for reasons of prestige.

But the authority and prestige of the regime is now breaking down. People have been driven to the limit, but COVID-19 has not been eliminated. Whilst large enterprises have received big tax cuts and benefits, many ordinary people don’t have access to meat, and at times find it hard to order food of any kind under the lockdowns.

Despite persisting in calling itself a ‘Communist’ regime, there is no communism in China. There is no democratic workers’ control in the workplaces, or wider society. This lack of democratic control from below has led to all the inconsistencies, bungling and suffering that the bureaucracy has imposed on the masses.

If there was real workers’ democracy in China, the challenge of fighting the pandemic would have seen the masses themselves involved in developing the necessary measures to minimise infections, vaccinate the population, protect peoples’ jobs and income, and guarantee access to daily necessities. Ordinary people would have been fully informed and involved in a collective effort to protect public health, rather than having haphazard and onerous measures imposed on them from the top.

Do not trust the liberals!

At this point, we offer a warning to those involved in the mass movement. While, at this moment, there is little sign of the nefarious bourgeois-liberal elements intervening in the protests, there should be an absolute rejection of anyone appealing to the West for help. This was the fatal error that led the 2019 Hong Kong protest movement to defeat. It is likely that Western governments will offer forked-tongued statements of ‘solidarity’ with these protests for ‘democracy’, but such overtures must be rejected with contempt. Western imperialism is no friend of the Chinese workers and youth. It only wishes to weaken China – the main rival to US capitalism on the world stage – in order to promote its own political interests.

We should also have no illusions about the present pro-capitalist system under the CCP. The regime may even be forced to make some concessions, but this would only be to demobilise the protests. At a later date, once the movement ebbs, they would hit hard against anyone involved in organising this struggle. The idea that some kind of reform towards genuine socialism is possible under this regime should also be excluded.

For now, the majority of the protests are raising slogans that are focused on ending the severe lockdown, or simply rendering the lockdowns “more humane.” Calls for the downfall of the CCP and Xi Jinping, or bourgeois liberal demands, such as freedom of the press and speech, are in the minority. Should the regime move to quell these protests through repression, this would offer a searing lesson for a new generation of workers and youths.

But both repression and concessions contain dangers for the regime. Concessions will embolden the masses, demonstrating that this regime is not as all-powerful as it presents itself. Repression, meanwhile, contains the danger of fanning the flames of anger and outrage.

However things develop, this experience will help draw the most advanced layers to the conclusion that simple bourgeois-democratic reforms will not address the problems they face in any way. The only way forward is the revolutionary removal of the CCP capitalist regime, followed by the establishment of a genuine socialist workers’ democracy.

The movement cannot simply count on the regime admitting defeat. The Xi Jinping regime has concentrated powers in the man at the top, and its aim is to keep it that way. At some point, retaliation on the part of the regime will occur. There are, in fact, already reports of some Zhengzhou workers being arrested in their homes after having taken their 10,000 RMB concession.

This protest movement, however, has lifted the lid on the depths of resentment among the mass of workers and youth. Given the nature of the regime, with its powerful means of coercion and repression, its massive censorship and control over means of communication, we could sometimes walk away with a picture in mind of a stable society and regime in China… that is, until everything erupts from below. Then the real instability emerges and the potential for social revolution becomes abundantly clear to millions of people. A process of class differentiation is taking place, which stems from the social polarisation produced by decades of capitalist development.

So long as the transition to capitalism seemed to be working – creating jobs, developing society, producing a powerful productive apparatus, in spite of all the inequalities – the masses could feel that things were improving; that today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. But this has now reached its limits.

Gone are the days of double-digit growth. Now we have all the contradictions of capitalism pushing the masses onto the road of class struggle. But the past 40 years of transformation and development of capitalism in China has produced the biggest proletariat on the planet, now counted in the hundreds of millions. This force is beginning to move. The bureaucrats of the CCP, together with the homegrown Chinese capitalists and foreign capitalists, have good reason to be worried about these latest events.

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