In what is being hailed as the largest anti-government protest movement China has experienced since the unrest in 1989 that culminated with the Tiananmen Square massacre, nearly all of China’s major cities have witnessed large crowds taking to the streets to protest against the Communist Party’s dictatorial rule.
The protests initially began in response to the deaths of ten people in a fire at an apartment block in Xinjiang province. The fires were blamed on Beijing’s draconian “zero-Covid” policy, which has resulted in millions of Chinese suspected of being in contact with the virus being locked in their apartments for weeks on end.
Since then they have grown into a nationwide protest movement which increasingly is calling for radical changes in the way the country is governed rather than demanding an easing of the Covid restrictions.
Of particular concern for China’s Communist rulers will be the prominent role the nation’s students are playing in the disturbances, where they are protesting against the regime’s restrictions on freedom of speech and heavy-handed political control.
In one demonstration at Beijing’s Tsinghua University earlier this week, students were recorded chanting the slogan “Democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech.”
The emergence of China’s restless student population in the anti-government protests will be a matter of deep concern for the authorities, as students were in the vanguard of the 1989 pro-democracy movement that ultimately resulted in the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Chinese authorities have worked hard to clamp down on student protests in the intervening decades, so the fact that the students are once more playing a central role in the unrest would be deeply disconcerting for the country’s Communist masters.
It should also send a signal to US President Joe Biden that the position of his Chinese opposite number, Xi Jinping, is not as secure as he would like the outside world to believe. Only last month, Xi was awarded an unprecedented third term as leader at the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress.
From Washington’s perspective, the eruption of a protest movement that is directly challenging the Communist Party’s autocratic rule should be seen as a positive development, as it demonstrates that there are significant political divisions in a country that has become America’s main superpower rival.
Yet, rather than supporting the brave protesters who are defying the tyranny of their Communist masters, the Biden administration appears reluctant to comment on the turmoil. Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have all avoided commenting on the unrest.
The “see no evil, hear no evil” approach of the Biden administration certainly contrasts sharply with that adopted by Beijing when the U.S. experiences its own political challenges. Following the storming of the US Capitol last year, commentators in the state-owned Chinese media indulged in a wave of mockery, comparing the violence with anti-government protests in Hong Kong and accusing Washington of hypocrisy.
Biden’s reticence about commentating on the disturbances in China may be explained by his recent three-hour meeting with Xi at the G20 summit in Indonesia, when the two leaders agreed to de-escalate tensions on contentious issues, such as Taiwan, as well as by a growing body of evidence that he appears to have been seriously politically compromised by lavish deals between “CCP-linked Individuals & Companies” and the Biden family.
Iran is another country that is experiencing enormous political turmoil, but where American officials are also proving reticent to support the wave of anti-regime protests, as is evident from the craven behaviour of the US Soccer Federation (USSF) at the World Cup currently taking place in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Prior to America’s game with Iran on Tuesday, the USSF’s website briefly displayed Iran’s national flag without the emblem representing the Islamic Republic. But after Tehran reacted furiously to the omission, which was taken as a gesture of support with anti-regime protesters in Iran, the USSF quickly deleted the graphic, reinstating the Islamic Republic’s emblem.
Such craven conduct typifies the response of American officialdom to the malign rule of the ayatollahs, which has seen an estimated 500 Iranians killed — including women and children — during the regime’s brutal repression of anti-government protests, with another 18,000 protesters taken into detention.
The Biden administration’s unwillingness, moreover, to lend its support to anti-regime protesters in despotic states such as China and Iran is certainly short-sighted, as it encourages regime officials in the belief that they can act with impunity against their opponents.
This is a grave miscalculation, as the most effective way of challenging autocratic regimes such as those in power in China and Iran is to lend encouragement to those seeking to challenge the legitimacy of their rule.
For it is only when these regimes are forced to acknowledge they no longer enjoy the support of the people that they will ultimately be persuaded to undertake wholesale reforms.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.