China’s white paper revolution scares Xi Jinping

January 22, 2023

From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters

by Bob McGuire

In October Xi Jinping flaunted his intention to rule for life by clearing the inner circle of the ruling Communist Party of all but lackeys. In November his lifetime rule became much more precarious as a fire took the lives of dozens of residents of an apartment building sealed off under a COVID lockdown in Urumqi, capital of the traditionally Uyghur province of Xinjiang.

Fences and parked cars blocked fire engines for three hours. Locked exits prevented residents from leaving, leading to far more deaths than the bureaucrats’ official tally of 10. It is hauntingly reminiscent of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 garment workers, mostly women, after the owners locked all exits.

An angry protest in Urumqi led to an explosion of mass protests in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and many smaller cities, as well as at college campuses across China—all seemingly without an organizing authority. Solidarity of Han majority protesters with Uyghur deaths has a parallel with the months-long defiance across Iran following the murder in custody of ethnic Kurdish woman Jina (Mahsa) Amini. Both regimes have often fomented ethnic antagonisms to divert protests.


Protesters who carried signs demanding freedom from despotic zero-COVID lockdowns had nothing in common with COVID deniers or anti-vaxxers on the far-right fringe in North America. Other protesters proclaimed: “It’s a man-made disaster!”

More frightening to China’s rulers were other messages: “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of the Press” and “Democracy and the Rule of Law.” Demands included: “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” and “Death to Xi Jinping!” Maybe most threatening to continued rule by Xi and his state-capitalist regime were the thousands who displayed blank pieces of white typing paper. Every fellow protester would read on them the slogans that they do not yet dare utter.

Blank paper or not, police rounded up crowds of protesters, and used ever-present surveillance technology to keep picking off participants for days. But those slogans have not disappeared from people’s minds, no more than the ideas of the 1979 Democracy Wall movement were destroyed by ripping down its big character posters.

COVID lockdown under a zero-COVID policy had by many accounts killed many people even before the fire in Urumqi. Local lockdowns have lasted as long as a month, as in Shanghai. The most extreme lockdowns imprisoned residents in their own homes and denied them access to job sites, and therefore income, stores, restaurants and entertainment. It left them at risk of death, as they lost their income and were unable to buy food.


This was a solution that only a totalitarian would contrive: The mRNA vaccines of Pfizer and Moderna have proved to be more effective than China’s, but it is China’s which has been administered to 80% of the population and only half that number have received more than the initial shot. It’s like the old joke about a customer criticizing the restaurant food: It’s not good, and there’s not enough of it.


Protesters have demanded that the regime, sitting on trillions of dollars in foreign exchange reserves from the labor power of workers in export industries, buy effective vaccines and subsidize all whose income stopped because of lockdowns. Instead, ignoring any demands except the ones opposing lockdowns, Xi abruptly ended almost all COVID restrictions.

Thus infections in Hong Kong have tripled in two months, and hospitals are apparently overcrowded in Chinese cities where numbers are untrustworthy. The largely-unvaccinated population of those over 80 is in the most danger of this renewed pandemic.


At the December memorial for Jiang Zemin, Xi praised him for his opposition to the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But in Shanghai, which had been the vanguard of working-class revolt for over 60 years, it wasn’t Jiang’s opinion that won him the job of Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. It was his actions as head of the Party in suppressing outbreaks of insurgency in Shanghai after the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, including executions of workers. It was Jiang who oversaw the state-capitalist economy calling itself Communist and offering the labor power of Chinese workers to foreign capitalists.

The November 2022 revolt of the 200,000 iPhone workers at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou exposed the continuation of the harsh new stage of “so-called primitive accumulation of capital” that began in the 1990s. Workers have been locked within their departments and fed meager rations to keep churning out iPhones even as the pandemic appears in one place or another. Like convicted prisoners, workers have to engineer an escape plan. The last straw was bringing new workers into Foxconn who then realized that their pay and benefits had been slashed.

Xi’s New Year message to his yes-men was that “We are on the right side of history.” But he no doubt fears that it is the revolutionaries on the left side of history who are poised to take them all on in their struggle for decent working conditions and new human relationships.

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