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Why China's anti-lockdown protests put Xi Jinping 'in a bind'

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Mass protests in China over President Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy present the hardline leader with one of his biggest political challenges since he assumed power in 2013.

For the first time in decades, thousands of people have defied Chinese authorities to protest at universities and on the streets of major cities, demanding to be freed not only from incessant COVID-19 tests and lockdowns, but strict censorship and the Communist Party's tightening grip over all aspects of life.

Some demonstrators even took aim at the president.

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Demonstrators hold blank signs during a protest in Beijing. Protests against COVID-19 restrictions spread across China on Sunday as citizens took to the streets and university campuses, venting their anger and frustrations on local officials and the Communist Party. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

During the first night of the demonstrations in Shanghai, a crowd shouted "Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!" in an unprecedented, direct challenge to the top leader.

While the Chinese government can deploy a fearsome state security network to crack down on the protests, Xi has little room to manoeuvre, one expert says.

Jennifer Hsu, of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute think tank, told 9news.com.au Xi is likely to tread warily.

"There is potential for authorities to be very forceful and draconian," Hsu said.

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Protesters shout slogans during a protest against China's strict zero-COVID measures on November 28, 2022 in Beijing. (Getty)

But she said any blood crackdown similar to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 would carry a "very high political cost" for Xi.
"He's just come away from a G20 summit and seemed to have engaged with the world," Hsu said.

The international community is pressing China to show restraint in dealing with the protests.

The United Nations urged Chinese authorities to guarantee people's "right to demonstrate peacefully," Secretary-General spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said at a daily briefing.

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China President Xi Jinping has little room to move in responding to the anti-lockdown protests, experts say. (AP)

Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said China's ruling Communist Party should "take notice" of the protests.

But Hsu said the response by authorities will probably be decided at a local level and differ in their intensity.

"There may be harsher crackdowns in some areas compared to other areas based on the perception of threat by the party state."

While protests in several parts of China appear to have largely dispersed peacefully over the weekend, some met a stronger response from authorities – and security has been tightened across cities in a country where authorities have far-reaching surveillance and security capabilities.

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Policemen pin down and arrest a protester during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China. (AP)

In Beijing, a heavy police presence was apparent on Monday evening, a day after protests broke out there.

Police vehicles, many parked with their lights flashing, lined eerily quiet streets throughout parts of the capital, including near Liangmaqiao in the city's central Chaoyang district, where a large crowd of protesters had gathered Sunday night.

Hsu says there is little chance of China's government caving in and agreeing to major changes.

"I don't think the party would want to be seen making a big hurrah about meeting the protesters' demands or requests for improvement, they won't do that ... they might declare they have won victory against COVID-19 and then move to the next stage," she said.

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China's strict zero-COVID policy has stoked protests across the country. (Getty)

And unwinding the zero-COVID policy - championed so strongly by Xi - would also bring risks for his authority.

China has low vaccination rates among the elderly, lacks effective domestic vaccines, and refuses to use foreign vaccines.
'He's certainly in a bind," Hsu said.


LOL at the CCP banning foreign vaccinee's for their crappy "best in their world" vaccinee's.
 

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