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MARK ALMOND: Why Beijing's autocratic leader could yet become a sacrificial lamb

Chinese authorities take a dim view of their people's protests and normally act to crush any dissent with ruthless efficiency

The Chinese authorities take a dim view of their people’s protests – and normally act to crush any dissent with ruthless efficiency.

Yet in recent days, protests have unfolded across this country, unprecedented in their direct challenge to the communist regime and in particular to President Xi Jinping.

Since Chairman Mao’s feared rule from 1949 to 1976 – which saw perhaps 60 million Chinese killed by starvation, persecution, forced labor and mass executions – few Chinese have dared to criticize the country’s leader.

Now that has changed. The streets echo with the cry: “Come down, Xi Jinping! Quit, Communist Party!

Chinese authorities take a dim view of their people's protests and normally act to crush any dissent with ruthless efficiency

Chinese authorities take a dim view of their people’s protests – and normally act to crush any dissent with ruthless efficiency

Yet in recent days, protests have unfolded across this country, unprecedented in their direct challenge to the communist regime and in particular to President Xi Jinping.

Yet in recent days, protests have unfolded across this country, unprecedented in their direct challenge to the communist regime and in particular to President Xi Jinping.

The catalyst, as the Mail reported, was a deadly fire last week at an apartment building in the city of Xinjiang, in which ten people were burned to death. The victims had effectively been buried in their building amid a draconian Covid lockdown, with emergency exits blocked under pandemic restrictions.

This completely preventable tragedy has caused a wave of anger across the country. In a video, circulating on Chinese social media, residents of Xinjiang are shown sarcastically singing the verse of their national anthem: “Arise, those who refuse to be slaves!” to the police.

What do these protests mean for Xi and China? Could they escalate and eventually see the overthrow of the tyrannical one-party state – or will they be ruthlessly suppressed like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989?

For many in the West, Xi’s tenure might seem unassailable. Only two weeks ago, in Bali, his fellow G20 leaders courted his favor like suppliants.

As Western prime ministers jostled for audiences and photo ops with the 69-year-old, our own Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was snubbed at the last minute when his scheduled meeting with Xi was canceled following a missile explosion at the Polish border.

The catalyst, as the Mail reported, was a deadly fire last week at an apartment building in the city of Xinjiang, in which ten people were burned to death.  The victims had effectively been buried in their building amid a draconian Covid lockdown, with emergency exits blocked under pandemic restrictions

The catalyst, as the Mail reported, was a deadly fire last week at an apartment building in the city of Xinjiang, in which ten people were burned to death. The victims had effectively been buried in their building amid a draconian Covid lockdown, with emergency exits blocked under pandemic restrictions

Maybe Xi also believed he was more or less omnipotent. After all, the Communist Party Congress had recently confirmed him as effective “life president.” How quickly things have changed. Xi’s protracted “Zero Covid” policy, which seeks to use lockdowns and other restrictions to stamp out the virus, has severely weakened his authority.

Locked in their apartments for weeks – leading to reports of starvation – megacities from Shanghai to Chongqing have been shut down completely, strangling economic and social activity for the past two and a half years.

As of last week, one in five Chinese (280 million) are believed to still be living under Covid restrictions. A once thriving economy is stagnating. This year, China will be well below its annual growth target of 5.5%; Reuters predicts just 3.2%. Then there’s the effect of technology – making it easier for protesters to congregate online in ways that weren’t possible before.

All of this leaves Xi in an increasingly vulnerable position. So what can he do? Relaxing his Zero Covid policy would make him look weak and his regime incompetent – and could also lead to devastating outbreaks of the virus in a country that has almost no immunity to it.

Several million Chinese are unvaccinated and only around 40% of people over the age of 80 – the group most vulnerable to infection – have received a booster shot. Although China has its own vaccine, Sinovac, it does not appear to have been as effective as its Western equivalents.

If the protests escalate, then behind closed doors in the leaders’ compound next to the Forbidden City, a plot could emerge to turn Xi into a kind of sacrificial lamb.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. In November 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu was unanimously re-elected by the Romanian Communist Party even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the appearance of cracks in the Iron Curtain. Barely a month later Ceausescu was dead – executed by firing squad. If enough Party bosses think that sacrificing the previously all-powerful Xi will calm the national mood, they won’t hesitate to impeach him.

After all, only last month, in ruthless public humiliation, former President Hu Jintao was forcibly removed from the closing session of the Chinese National Congress, no doubt under Xi’s command. Now it may be Xi’s turn to be dragged off to who knows where.

As of last week, one in five Chinese (280 million) are believed to still be living under Covid restrictions.  A once thriving economy is stagnating.  This year, China will be well below its annual growth target of 5.5%

As of last week, one in five Chinese (280 million) are believed to still be living under Covid restrictions. A once thriving economy is stagnating. This year, China will be well below its annual growth target of 5.5%

If the protests escalate, then behind closed doors at the leaders' compound next to the Forbidden City, a plot could emerge to make Xi a kind of sacrificial lamb

If the protests escalate, then behind closed doors at the leaders’ compound next to the Forbidden City, a plot could emerge to make Xi a kind of sacrificial lamb

Our Prime Minister must have all of this in mind. Last night Sunak addressed the gathering of senior officials at the City of London’s Guildhall.

An instinctive Sinophile, who sought closer ties to Beijing as Chancellor, the Prime Minister recently reversed the description of Beijing as a “threat” (the word favored by his predecessor Liz Truss) and instead redefined the most populated by the world as a “systemic challenge”. ‘. While his aim to treat China with “robust pragmatism” is not, in and of itself, a mistake, he should be wary of getting too close to the dragon.

As I have warned before, our goal in the West should be to increase our distrust of this self-serving superpower and reduce our dependence on it. Half a century ago, Richard Nixon visited China in a gesture intended to mark the thaw of the Cold War. Yet as the former president approached the end of his life, according to former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he “feared he had created a Frankenstein.” Today, despite all the recent protests, the monster has never been strong – though one of its heads may soon be severed.

Rishi Sunak needs to realize this – and be careful who he chooses as friends.

Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute in Oxford.

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