I confess that, along with millions of others, I have followed the World Cup this week. With a natural tendency to root for the underdog (this is one of the few arenas where the US regularly qualifies in that category), I am also intrigued by many of the personal, side-bar stories over the course of a tournament. In that regard, I was deeply impressed by the courageous show of solidarity demonstrated by the Iranian team with protests back home sparked by the death of 22-year old aspiring lawyer Mahsa Amini who was killed after being arrested by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab in a way that made some of her hair visible.
Admiration turned to deep dismay when it was revealed that this protest caused players’ family members to be threatened and that, following the defeat by the US squad, Iranian team members reportedly faced retribution upon returning home.
Neither the World Cup nor the actions of the Iranian football (soccer) team exist in a vacuum and my thoughts quickly turned to the massive protests in China, unprecedented since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.
As James Palmer writes in Foreign Policy, “People across China rallied this weekend against the government’s increasingly unpopular zero-COVID policy…with some directly challenging the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It represents the largest wave of popular protest since student-led demonstrations in 1989. Authorities are scrambling to respond to the protests, which have been accompanied by an even broader expression of online support.”
Palmer points out that “protests are common in China, but nationwide protests for a single cause are not. Protests that explicitly call for the end of the CCP are even rarer, especially in Beijing, where one person dropping a banner calling for the removal of Chinese President Xi Jinping last month made major news. Now, some protesters are openly calling for Xi to step down, blank signs have become a symbol of resistance to censorship, and videos of the protests have spread on social media.”
What led to these protests? Palmer summarizes the events as follows: “Last Thursday, a fire broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi [the capital of Xinjiang Province], killing at least 10 people (and perhaps more than 40), including children. The victims appear to be mostly from the Uyghur Muslim minority, which has faced a campaign of intense state violence in Xinjiang since 2017.
“Xinjiang has been under a strict lockdown since early August. Claims soon spread by word of mouth and online that COVID-19 prevention measures, including physical barricades and locked doors and staircases, had prevented firefighters from reaching the building in time and residents from evacuating.”
Howard French, also writing in Foreign Policy, reminds us, “as tempting as it will be for many, it is wrong to see this crisis as solely the result of a spark from Urumqi. This challenge to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the state has been building for some time. The country’s unusually strict and prolonged campaign to contain the COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of deep discontent for many months, leaving many Chinese people feeling disenchanted with Xi, who seems more obsessed with control than any leader since Mao Zedong.
“On Oct. 13, on the eve of the Party Congress in Beijing where Xi effectively coronated himself—and amid high, citywide security—a man hung large protest banners on Sitong Bridge, which passes over a major central thoroughfare, denouncing not just the country’s zero-COVID policy but also Xi’s dictatorship, censorship, personality cult, and suppression of human rights. The banners read:
We don’t want nucleic acid testing, we want food to eat;
We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom;
We don’t want lies, we want dignity;
We don’t want Cultural Revolution, we want reform;
We don’t want [dictatorial] leaders, we want elections;
We don’t want to be slaves, we want to be citizens.
“In an echo of the famous Tank Man of Tiananmen, the man was arrested and reportedly has not been seen or heard from since.” Who are these martyrs today and how will we celebrate them in generations to come?”
Citizens in democratic countries like ours should take note: while short-term gains for autocratic regimes may sometimes emerge, they are invariably fleeting. Repressive clampdowns are, in the end, not sustainable, especially in the age of social media. Young people will always find ways to avoid, deceive or outrun the authorities; fissures will eventually appear in the walls of power; the will for freedom among the people will ultimately prevail.
Herein lies our greatest hope for the future.