Choo Chon Kai, a leading activist in the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), has been following and building solidarity with democracy activists in China for many years. He spoke to Green Left about the protests that have taken place recently in several cities in China.
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What is behind the recent protests in China?
The recent wave of protests — across many parts of China — were sparked by resentment against some of the zero COVID-19 policies that have been implemented for almost three years. They took place just after Xi Jinping was elected for a third term as general secretary of the Communist Party of China.
Over the past few months there have been a number of incidents that built up this public anger towards local governments and sometimes against the central government.
After five months of local lockdowns, people became very resentful of the Shanghai government which is led by Li Qiang, who is also the second highest in the Communist Party and is going to replace Li Keqiang as the premier next year.
Another recent issue concerned the workers in the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou [the largest factory making iPhones] in the Central Plains of Wuhan, where the management implemented the lockdown rules in a way that exposed the workers to the virus. Images of workers trying to escape the factory went viral in social media, despite censorship, and protests by the workers were suppressed.
But an immediate spark for the recent protests was the apartment block fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, which killed at least 10 people. Because Urumqi was under lockdown and Xinjiang has been under very strict control by the government because of its sensitivity over the Uyghur issue, the fire brigade had problems getting close enough to put out the fire and people were not allowed to leave the burning apartments. The authorities deny this but people don’t believe them.
It is reported that people were not only angry about the harshness of the lockdowns but also because they were imposed very unevenly in different parts of China. Why is this?
I think it is tied to the bureaucracy. The problem is that the lower levels of government have to meet targets set by the central and provincial governments about controlling the pandemic. The officials want to be seen to be performing well so they can get promotions and have in some cases imposed very harsh lockdowns even when they are not necessary. And there are no checks on the bureaucracy from civil society.
Does the harsh lockdown impact worse on poor and working class communities compared to the middle class and the rich?
Definitely. The ordinary workers and small businesses are deeply impacted. The government has programs to supply basic needs to people but when these are not delivered in time there is resentment. Many workers have to work in the gig economy, so they lose their income when there is a lockdown.
Working people are not totally against the government containing the virus, but the problem they have is with prolonged lockdowns which make life very difficult for them.
What about the workers who are employed by the big global multinational corporations who make so much profit from their exploitation?
In the case of the Foxconn factory, the management was trying to force the workers to go to work despite the upsurge in infections and the harsh restrictions on movement in the community. So they were caught between the employer and the state.
Some of the protesters in the universities have been raising much broader demands than the end of the harsh lockdowns, including calls for Xi Jinping to step down. Is there a new generation of students being politicised?
For the past few decades, within intellectual circles (including students), there has been a growing anxiety about the concentration of power in the hands of a small party elite, especially during the Xi Jinping era. Before the regime was equally pro-market but there was more political room for civil society and intellectuals to discuss. There was not as much political space in the lead up to 1989, but there was more space than there is now.
In 2019 the students from the Marxist Society in Peking/Beijing University went to the south of the country to show solidarity with protesting workers, but most were arrested and their leaders were detained for long periods. Teachers in the university who sympathised with these students and the worker struggles were charged and some of them are still in prison.
The recent protests may show that some of the fear that gripped the students and intellectuals after that crackdown may be easing. But it is not clear whether demands for the government to step down have broader support in the broader population. There may be some exaggeration by the international media about how widespread these demands are.
The scale of the protests is still very far from that in the pre-1989 period when there was a more open political atmosphere where many people were discussing the future of China.
There were some reports of demonstrations in Hong Kong with people holding up blank pieces of paper like the protesters are doing on the mainland. Do you think there might be a rekindling of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, which has been suppressed for some time?
In Hong Kong there is still a very difficult situation. Aside from suppression by the state they have been impacted by right-wing localist forces. Some of these right-wing forces are more interested in fleeing overseas than showing solidarity with the latest protests on the mainland. They have never been truly supportive of the democratic movement in mainland China.
Comparatively, there is still more freedom in Hong Kong than in mainland China.
In the context of the escalating imperialist drive to contain China’s rise on economic, political and military fronts, some leftists in the West, and even in your country, are painting democracy activists in China as agents of imperialism. What do you say about this tendency?
This is really divisive for the left. The US feels threatened by China’s rise in economic power and is using every means to try and contain it and retain US supremacy. Of course the US is trying to use the recent protests as an excuse for its hostile policies against China, but the people in China also have a legitimate right to struggle for a better life and more democratic space.
A lack of support from the left around the world will alienate them from the genuine democracy movement, and the real left, in China. This will also have the effect of pushing some democracy activists to the right-wing imperialist forces — not only in China but also in other countries whose governments are the targets of the imperialist powers in this period of growing geopolitical tensions.
It is challenging for the left to work out the correct policy in this situation, but this is a challenge it needs to take up.
[This is an abridged transcript of the full interview, which can be seen at greenleft.org.au.]