Xi Jinping’s unrepentant faith in continuing the zero-COVID national strategy is breeding public unrest throughout the People’s Republic of China. Demonstrations have broken out in at least eight mainland cities as well as Hong Kong since Friday. The government has eased some of the controls and policies in light of the demonstrations, but this is still clearly a carrot and stick situation. Right behind the easing of select controls comes the decision by at least twelve universities in Beijing and the Guangdong Province to send their students home and conduct final exams remotely. Dispersing students back to their hometowns cuts down on the prospect of further demonstrations, thus serving to help defuse the situation. The police presence in Beijing and other urban areas has been reinforced and made more visible.
China’s zero-COVID strategy was never intended to last forever. Yet between almost continuous COVID outbreaks and Xi’s stubborn refusal to bend, it seems like forever to millions of Chinese citizens. The deaths of 10 people in an apartment fire in the city of Urumqi on Thursday has been the catalyst for this round of anti-zero-COVID protests and demonstrations. Almost instinctively, many citizens questioned whether COVID restrictions contributed to the deaths. Urumqi had been under zero-COVID lockdown since August.
What happens next remains uncertain. If the unrest continues and grows, the central government will be forced to implement more censorship restrictions. This will serve as the precursor to a heavy-handed crackdown. On the other hand, if the unrest dies out by later this week most of China’s cities will return to a zero-COVID normalcy. One way or another, zero-COVID has to be overhauled or discarded entirely. The damage it causes to China and its economy increases with every passing day. The sooner Xi realizes this, the better. Unfortunately, it does not appear that China’s leader will come to the realization anytime soon.
Public anger and frustration is threatening to boil over in Sri Lanka amid a growing economic crisis that has greatly diminished the standard of living and now threatens to unseat the current government. Sri Lankans are defying the present state of emergency which bans public gathering and protests. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared the emergency on Saturday, hoping to prevent the large-scale demonstrations that were scheduled for today (Sunday, 3 April, 2022). Along with restricting public movement and imposing a curfew, internet access was also severely limited, a move that has caused dissent within the Sri Lankan government.
The government’s heavy-handed moves come in response to a demonstration involving thousands of people outside Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home in Colombo. The protest began peacefully but turned violent when security forces used tear gas and water cannons on the crowd. Demonstrators responded by throwing rocks and setting fire to vehicles used by the security forces. Over fifty demonstrators were arrested, and two dozen security officers suffered injuries.
The root cause of the present situation is the government’s handling of the worst economic crisis to hit the island nation in decades. Conditions have been going downhill for some time owing to a combination of events and circumstances that started with the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019. Those attacks, which killed over 250 people, hit Sri Lanka’s tourism-reliant economy very hard. Next came the COVID-19 pandemic which placed heavy pressure on the currency. Along with a host of other factors, these landmark events have combined to produce a situation where Sir Lankans find it increasingly difficult to purchase fuel, medicine and other essential goods.
All eyes are now on Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government. How the nation’s leaders react to public defiance of the curfew and state of emergency will determine what the next phase of the crisis will bring. Already, many politicians from parties in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s governing coalition are starting to grow antsy. Calls that he appoint a caretaker government that represents all eleven parties represented in parliament are growing louder. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, a coalition member, announced on Friday that it will leave the coalition unless Rajapaksa takes measures to “alleviate the economic crisis, after which an election must be called for.”
Civil unrest in Kazakhstan, touched off by demonstrations against a surge in the price of a fuel, is escalating into a national uprising that threatens the government’s hold on power and the stability of the Central Asian power. It is not fair to say that the high gas prices alone are responsible for the outbreak of civil unrest and violence. The price increase acted as a spark or catalyst for a long list of grievances that have accrued since 1991, mostly of the political type.
From Sunday through earlier today, the demonstrations increased in size and scope, eventually transforming into riots. Clashes between police and demonstrators became more frequent and violent. Now four days later, the situation can safely be labeled an uprising by anti-government protesters. Government buildings, TV studios and even the largest city Almaty’s international airport having been stormed by hundreds or thousands of protesters. Announcements that the entire Kazakh government was being fired and new parliamentary elections to be held in the spring did little to mollify the mood of the protesters. The government has also clamped down on the internet, closing access to many websites and social media platforms.
Moscow is watching the situation in Kazakhstan closely, and likely with growing concern. The Kazakh government is authoritarian and a close ally of Russia. The fact that the regime in Nur-Sultan is trying to appease the opposition cannot be sitting well with Vladimir Putin. After Euro Maidan in 2014 and the Belarussian pro-democracy rallies in 2020, seeing similar events now playing out in Central Asia will set off alarm bells in the Kremlin. The timing of the Kazakh uprising couldn’t be much worse either. With next week bringing meetings between Russian and Western delegations over security concerns, Putin will be very limited with what types and amount of assistance he can provide to his allies in the Kazakh government. He’s quite aware that the world is watching him carefully right now and he needs to remain on his best behavior.
Protesters took to the streets in cities across Russia on 23 January to challenge the government’s decision to arrest opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Bitter winter weather, the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of incarceration did little to deter thousands of people. Russian police and security forces were out in force, arresting over 3,000 demonstrators. This weekend’s gatherings indicate that there will be a large number of similar protests between now and parliamentary elections in September. This weekend’s protests only serve to highlight the resignations of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cabinet following his annual address to the Federal Assembly in which he proposed changes to the constitution which could potentially allow him to remain as the head of the Russian government past 2024 when his final term as president ends. More specific, Putin’s proposed political changes also place Navalny’s arrest under the microscope as many observers inside of, as well as outside Russia are making a connection between the two. After all, where there is smoke, there’s also generally fire.
Navalny was arrested almost immediately after returning to Russia from Germany. The fact that Russian authorities wasted little time moving against him has made the Kremlin appear nervous and vengeful. The action also serves to cast a deeper shadow over Putin and his intentions through the coming months as parliamentary elections approach. The potential for political unrest in Russia in the coming months is quite real. Vladimir Putin has had a hold on Russia for two decades. The majority of Russians continue to support their president, but that support is quite tentative. Putin will be acting to make certain that support does not collapse, while Navalny is undoubtedly working to erode that support and redirect it to his opposition movement.
The coming months promise to be active ones in Russia.
Over the past week protests in Lebanon have turned violent. Following months of relatively peaceful demonstrations across the small country anti-government protesters and security forces clashed in the streets of Beirut. The past weekend saw the most violence with over 100 citizens injured. Police and security forces made dozens of arrests, with most coming as protesters attempted to storm Lebanon’s Parliament building. The situation on the ground deteriorated to the point that the Lebanese government called in the military to bolster the ranks of police and security personnel.
Political corruption has been at the heart of the protests. Frustration with the ruling class had been rising for quite some time in Lebanon. As has been the case in other nations across the region, the people have taken to the streets to demand change. Lebanon is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, and the government appears unable or unwilling to address it properly. Inflation and unemployment continue to rise, the national currency’s value is diminishing, and Lebanon’s credit ranking is in the basement.
To make matters even worse, cash is running short in banks around the nation. Commercial banks have placed restrictions on withdrawing dollars, and blocked money transfers abroad. These moves have sparked a number of extreme incidents at banks ranging from scuffles between depositors and bank employees to depositors physically occupying branches.
Unfortunately, even if the government brings on early elections as the protesters have demanded, there’s no guarantee a new parliament and cabinet will be able to stave off the looming economic catastrophe.