Human Rights

Recent protests point to 'sense of deprivation' gripping China

By Ruoyu

People gather on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests took place following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. [Hector Retamal/AFP]

People gather on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests took place following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. [Hector Retamal/AFP]

The scale and intensity of recent protests inside China -- and the fact that they even occurred in the first place -- show a deepening level of dissatisfaction among Chinese citizens, observers say.

Most recently in mid February, large-scale protests primarily led by retired Chinese broke out in Wuhan, China.

Hundreds of senior citizens took to the streets to protest and demand that the authorities reverse their medical insurance reform plan, which led to a drastic decrease in the monthly payments to the insured.

Video recordings showed large numbers of uniformed police trying to disperse the crowd, but the elders refused to back down. Nearby protesters also sang songs like "The Internationale" to imply that the Communist Party was deviating from its ideological roots.

Eyewitnesses reported that a number of protesters were beaten by the police. An unidentified number were arrested on dubious charges.

These protests come a few months after massive protests erupted across China over the government's policies on movement, travel and social interaction.

The protests started after a deadly fire last November consumed the upper floors of an apartment building in the northwest Xinjiang region, with many contending that the victims were not rescued in time because they were Muslims.

Beijing is accused of detaining more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking inhabitants of the far-western region in a secretive network of detention centres and prisons as part of a years-long crackdown on extremism.

But demonstrators also demanded wider political reforms, with some even calling top leaders to step down.

At the time, Wang Dan, who was jailed and then exiled after the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement was crushed, said the developments could signal a new "protest era".

The absence of a leader or organiser among the protesters is making it difficult for the government to control the demonstrations by arresting or suppressing a single person.

'Sense of deprivation'

In a matter of a few months, from the "White Paper Revolution" to the "White-Hair Protest", Chinese who had been afraid to speak out since 1989 have become increasingly accustomed to expressing their dissatisfaction publicly.

Many observers are asking why.

From a sociological point of view, the reason for the most recent protests a "sense of deprivation", said Ming Xia, a political scientist at City University of New York and a scholar of China.

"Generally speaking, people who are most likely to rebel are not those who are 'humiliated and persecuted,' because those who are the most powerless, without support, social resources, and economic resources, are even less likely to protest in the face of illness and hunger."

It is precisely because the protesting retirees once benefited from the system that they rebel after any reduction of payments, said Xia.

"Not to mention that they still have resources and have not completely fallen into poverty and hunger, which gives these retirees a certain amount of confidence. If their benefits are cut, they will feel a strong sense of unfairness and deprivation. They are likelier to fight against it," he added.

The seniors who participated in the protests had been relatively comfortable in recent years. Suddenly feeling deprived may have sparked their resistance, said Xia.

"In China, whether the problem is medical insurance or pensions, it is a nationwide phenomenon. The state finances are in short supply, and local governments' debts are high. The central government has already stated that it will not bail out local finances. If the local finances are in a relatively good state, they [local governments] can persist for a while, but if they are in bad shape, the pressure is enormous."

At the same time, "population aging" has become the most acute problem in Chinese society, which also deeply affects the lives of these senior citizens.

"Most elders in their 50s or 60s have only one child," said Xia. "Economic pressure is weighing on the entire society. When senior citizens encounter crises, they have no way to find a solution in the family."

Worrying foreign policy trends

In regard to foreign policy, some Chinese citizens may also be feeling major unease over their government's growing sabre rattling around the world.

China's intimidation of and threats toward Taiwan have become more obvious in recent months, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine has deepened worries in Taiwan that Beijing might move similarly to annex the island.

Beijing considers self-ruled, democratic Taiwan a part of its territory, to be taken one day -- by force if necessary -- and the island lives under the constant fear of a Chinese invasion.

In 2022, China conducted more than 1,700 incursions into Taiwan's air defence identification zone (ADIZ), up from 969 in 2021, according to AFP's database. Taiwan's Defence Ministry said it recorded about 380 incursions in 2020.

China's military exercises in the waters surrounding Taiwan -- the most recent of which were held January 8 -- also have affected global shipping lanes.

Meanwhile, tensions between China and Japan have been rising steadily, as Beijing claims the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited Japanese-controlled chain in the East China Sea.

China also claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

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