COVID protests spread in China
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: My goodness, speaking of kicking off your week, all across China, demonstrations of the sort that we have certainly not seen under Xi Jinping rule about COVID, about zero COVID, and the loss of liberties that Chinese citizens have faced, but also increasingly moving towards demands for free speech and open media, and even Xi Jinping's removal, certainly unprecedented in this country in the last decade. Xi now, of course, on his third term, having removed term limits, consolidated extraordinary power, but some people really aren't happy about it.
What's going on here? Well, first of all, the proximate cause, the spark that set this all off was an apartment building fire in Xinjiang, where the firefighters were not able to adequately respond because of COVID quarantine measures. So, they couldn't get hoses to actually fight the fire because they weren't allowed in, they didn't have the keys, it was locked down. And as a consequence, a lot of Chinese citizens died. That led to demonstrations all over the country, ostensibly in solidarity with this incredibly poor mistake on the part of local Chinese leaders in Xinjiang, but also really increasingly frustrated with the fact that zero COVID in China has been an incredible disruption to daily life for hundreds of millions of Chinese.
You get one case and suddenly you can lock down your entire apartment block. You were in contact with somebody who was in contact with someone that was positive and so much for your ability to get into a workplace or a restaurant. And these apps which monitor your every move, and unless you're green, you are not going anywhere as a Chinese citizen. And they're testing you across the country every two days. And they're watching while the rest of the world and the World Cup, for example, is all out and they're celebrating and they're in post-COVID life. And that's not the case in China at all.
Very interesting to see that the classes of people that are angry here are across the map. You've got students in universities across the country. You've got workers in factories that have been locked down, that are stuck in the dormitories or stuck in their places of work for weeks on end. You've got members of the middle-class in shopping malls in higher end locations. The urban intelligentsia in Shanghai, which led to some of the first significant outcry after their quarantines and lockdowns were fairly badly handled. And of course, as the wealthiest city in China, very educated city in China, the feeling was, well, how can our government get this wrong? We're the ones that are supposed to do everything right. Well, not at all.
Now, it's important to recognize that we're not talking about scenes that are violent. There have been a number of arrests, but nothing like significant repression on the part of the Chinese police forces or army so far, which means that the Chinese government is allowing this to play out at least over the course of the weekend. And I do expect that some of the response from the Chinese government will be an admission that zero COVID measures have not been effectively rolled out across the entire country that have not been equivalently rolled out across the entire country. By the way, that is true. And a number of local and regional officials will be forced to fall on their sword will be removed, some will be arrested, corruption, incompetence, I mean, we've certainly seen that movie before in China. And there's a lot that Xi Jinping can do in response to that as well as cracking down to a harder degree at the same time that would take a lot of these people off the streets.
So this is not a threat to Xi Jinping's regime or his rule. And if we look back to 1989, in the months leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre, demonstrations and massacre, you would've seen millions of people demonstrating across the country in cities everywhere. That is nothing remotely like what we're seeing right now.
But the key point here is that Xi Jinping's ability to respond to changing zero COVID is limited. There are record numbers of cases in China, nothing like what we see in the United States, but far greater than China has seen since the beginning of COVID outbreaks a couple of years ago. And a lot of Chinese are not vaccinated, and those that are, most of them were vaccinated a couple of years ago. Particularly when we look at older populations that are very vulnerable. China's own vaccines have been very limited in efficacy, less so than mRNA vaccines in the West. They're not willing to approve mRNA vaccines from the West. And while they have gone faster with approvals for therapeutics in response to COVID, they still don't have distribution taken care of on the ground in China. And so they don't have the widespread therapeutics that exist in the West either. So they're still at a minimum months away from meaningful reductions and relaxations of zero COVID policy in China. And that means that Xi Jinping's ability to truly address the anger that we're seeing on the streets is going to be mostly about stick, it's not about carrot.
Now, of course, with the surveillance state that China presently runs, they have the capacity to do that in a way that really no other state at scale can. But that does imply more violence. It does imply more repression. It also implies, and this is critical, longer reduced economic growth, bigger disruptions in supply chain. It's very interesting right now, I saw oil prices are basically trading at the top of their pre-Russian invasion range. Why? Because of expectations that zero COVID is going to be a bigger economic problem for longer. I think that's absolutely right, that the Chinese are going to have to deal with lower quality and lower realities of growth through 2023 at an absolute minimum.
Another thing I'd mention is that during Xi Jinping's private bilaterals at the G-20 in Bali, just a week and a half ago, he wasn't bringing up zero COVID at all. It didn't show up in those conversations unless he was proactively asked about it. In part, maybe because at the time he didn't think it was a crisis, certainly wasn't planning on making any significant announcements anytime soon. I think that's where we are right now.
So they're stuck, they're in a corner. This isn't major instability, but it's absolutely bearing watching out and certainly will have a major impact on the global economy in 2023. That's it for me. Hope everyone's well, and I'll talk to y'all real soon.