“Depose the dictator and traitor Xi Jinping”. On the 13th of October, the habitual to-ing and fro-ing under the Sitong Bridge in Beijing was all of a sudden interrupted by a confused scene. On the bridge, a man – Peng Lifa – was hanging banners and shouting anti-Xi Jinping slogans in the run up to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite a prompt arrestation, pictures of the “Bridge Man” rapidly spread all around the world.
Despite the commotion, it did not prevent the Congress from being successfully opened and closed ten days later. Xi, as expected, secured a third term as Party Secretary, surrounded by six more-than-loyal members of the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). How did Chinese society react to this outcome? Was the ‘Bridge Man’ an isolated dissenter? This article draws attention to various layers of Chinese society and their reaction heretofore, before crossing the Taiwan strait.
The future of the Chinese economy is a major concern following the 20th National Congress. Although the government recently revealed a higher increase in GDP than forecasted, the economy is still in jeopardy due to structural and conjunctural challenges, including the ‘zero-covid policy’ and high-tech sanctions. Complemented by rumors of new taxes under the “common prosperity” campaign, as well as a fear for personal security following the disappearance of economic tycoons, like Alibaba’s Jack Ma in 2021, the Congress further undermined the confidence of the China’s economic elite. In major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Wuhan, numerous wealthy Chinese reacted to the outcomes of the Congress by selling off their assets, leading to a sharp decrease of prices in the luxury real estate. Some properties in Shanghai were recently sold for as little as 30% to 40% of the market price (Everington, 2022). It appears as though the Congress catalyzed a pre-existing trend of (highly) wealthy business families seeking to “escape” China to set up “family offices” in Singapore (Gibson, 2022; White & Ruehl, 2022).
Foreign companies and investors
On the same token, the outcome of the Congress has not been well received by foreign companies and investors. Though their concerns predated the Congress, facing great challenges raised by the zero-covid policy, a more repressive state, and an increasing hostility vis-a-vis foreigners, numerous foreign companies announced the relocation of a part or all of their production or activity out of China (including Apple and Airbnb) (Chappell, 2022; Mantesso, 2022). The Congress outcome has only catalysed these trends. Following the Congress, the onshore yuan dropped to 7.3076 per US dollar on the 25th of October, a “near 15-year low” (Reuters, 2022). Market indexes recorded a fall of 14.4% for the Nasdaq’s Golden Dragon on Monday, and 9.7% for the Hong Kong’s Hang Seng (Steer & Ashworth, 2022) to reach record lows not seen since 2008.
Interestingly, Xi Jinping did not mention the so-called ‘ethnic minorities’ in his report to the Congress. Yet Uyghurs and Tibetans manage to be heard, both abroad and, to a lesser extent, in China. On the 17th of October, the Tibetan Youth Congress demonstrated in Himachal’s Dharamshala (India), to “show solidarity” to those who suffer from Chinese “occupation” and the zero-covid policy, as well as support to the independence of Tibet at the occasion of the CCP Congress (ANI News, 2022). Ten days later, protests broke out in Tibet against the strict zero-covid policy. Unsurprisingly, Ilshat Hasan, the executive vice chairman of the World Uyghur Congress exile group, said the new composition of the PBSC “is not a good sign […] for Uyghur people” (Hsia, 2022). The Uygur Congress called on Xi to “end genocide policies” and denounced a crackdown in the month preceding the National Congress to “ensure that Uyghurs ‘would not stir up trouble’” (World Uyghur Congress, 2022).
One of the most vocal oppositions to the CCP Congress may be found among overseas Chinese communities. The Sitong Bridge protest paved the way for a worldwide protest movement. At the London School of Economics, not unlike many universities around the world, posters suddenly popped up, imitating the banners of the ‘Bridge Man’: “No to lockdown, yes to freedom […]”. “The Poster Movement” (海报运动, haibao yundong) rapidly gained momentum. The slogans are both shared online and hung in public places, while gatherings are organized in cities like London (October 29, 2022), or New York (October 31, 2022). Information is notably shared through social media accounts, citizendailycn on Instagram being a case in point.
It is said that Chinese protesters are usually trying to keep a low profile, and rightfully so. China’s capacity to reach and exert pressure on overseas Chinese is epitomised by the recent discoveries of “Chinese overseas police stations”. Han Yutao, a Chinese student in the United States, experienced the consequences when his family was visited by police in Beijing the day after he protested on his campus (Hong, 2022).
And the ‘common people’?
The Sitong Bridge demonstration fostered a rare protest movement in Mainland China. In Shanghai, on the 23rd of October, protesters were reported using a similar banner. Indeed, following the ‘incident’, local authorities hasten to recruit “bridge watchers” (看桥员, kanqiaoyuan), in charge of surveilling bridges in Beijing (Lam, 2022). Meanwhile, some protesters hung anti-Xi Jinping posters in public bathrooms (Feng, 2022). The cases have been numerous enough for the police to issue an order for all print shops: “All printed and copied material must be reviewed by store staff" (Tang, 2022).
Qiu Guoqiang, reporting for Taiwan’s CNA, believes that there may be “a new era of mixed feelings” starting among Chinese (Qiu, 2022). A reporter from the same agency attempted to interview pedestrians in Shanghai, but reportedly found that they were “not interested” or “don’t have any opinion”. Yet the reality is that it is simply “not convenient to talk about this,” admitted another. One of the rare respondents, a driver for an app-based taxi service, said “he doesn’t care about who is in charge, having food to eat is the only thing that matters”.
Still, it remains difficult to assess the degree of satisfaction among the Chinese population. But one should bear in mind that the longevity of the CCP is notably to be explained by its capacity to secure a sufficient degree of legitimacy. In the eyes of foreign media, especially in Western democracies, the outcome of the Congress is negative in all respects. But support in China for the party-state, and Xi Jinping himself, has been and remains a reality.
The “Taiwan compatriots”
A widely commented on part of Xi’s report at the Congress was his pledge for ‘national reunification’. The reactions observed in Taiwan are those of a people accustomed to the regular, if not daily invectives and show of force from its neighbor. The Congress was covered extensively by Taiwanese media, but the discourse on both sides leaves a feeling of déjà vu. On the 27th, the Mainland Affairs Council, the Taiwan governmental agency in charge of cross-strait relations, published the results of an opinion poll on the 20th National Congress. According to the poll, 79.3% of respondents disagreed with the statement that the ‘peaceful reunification, one country two system’ is the best way to realize cross-strait reunification, while 86.3% supported the “broad maintenance of the status quo” (Chen, 2022).
The release of this poll was part of a firm, but boilerplate response from the Taiwanese government. The spokesperson of the Presidential Office reaffirmed its steadfast rejection of the ‘one country two systems’ solution: “maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is the shared responsibility of both sides” (Chang, 2022). Meanwhile, the Kuomintang (KMT), now in the opposition, sent congratulatory letters to the CCP. “We are following the standard practice” reassured KMT’s chairman (Chou & Wang Bing, 2022).
In Taiwanese media, the Congress’s outcome has largely been seen as a step up in the pressure coming from China, echoing the Taiwanese Defense Minister who interprets the new elected leaders as “CCP boosting its preparedness [for military intervention]” (T. Huang, 2022). The PBSC member and ideologist Wang Huning is expected to take over important responsibilities vis-a-vis the ‘Taiwan issue’ and may give a renewed impetus to the ‘one country two systems’ formula (Lu, 2022a). Still, the Mainland Affairs Council reasserted its general willingness to resume normal cross-strait exchanges (Lu, 2022c), and already authorized four Taiwanese business groups to visit mainland China (Lu, 2022b).
In Chinese society, some have manifested concerns over the outcome of the Congress: wealthy Chinese, foreign companies and investors, minorities and overseas Chinese. Yet, from a broader perspective, things are more complicated. Although a handful of protests have been reported, some don’t dare to speak and others simply don’t care. In a system as opaque as China’s it is hard to tell whether there is such a thing as silent majority. Still, despite the many reports of protest and dissent, we should continue bear in mind that the capacity of the party-state to secure legitimacy and support from the Chinese population has been and is likely to remain immense. In the end, only time will tell if the cracks that some have observed in Xi’s China will grow into anything substantial.
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