After protests forced China to ease its zero-COVID policies, Xi Jinping will need to weigh socioeconomic stability against his authoritarian aims, says USIP’s Andrew Scobell: “You’re seeing domestically what many countries have noticed China doing beyond its borders: Being more assertive or aggressive.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Andrew Scobell is a distinguished fellow for China at the United States Institute of Peace. Here to discuss the protests in China and more. Andrew, good morning.

Andrew Scobell: Good morning.

Julie Mason: Thanks so much for joining me. I know it's early, really appreciate it. So, these protests are continuing. You know, we were puzzling out a little bit earlier how Xi climbs down from this. How does he like, zero-COVID? Like what’s his move? What's the next play?

Andrew Scobell: Well, I think we're seeing right now that, while not officially backing away from zero-COVID, they're easing across China, authorities are easing restrictions on lockdowns and more than 20 cities have ended the requirements of a zero-COVID test for people who want to use public transportation. And quarantines, now you don't need to go to a special facility and leave your home. You can quarantine in place. So, we're already seeing adjustments, significant adjustments.

Julie Mason: I suspect this will be followed by an intensity in the outbreak of COVID in China. Since, you know, the efficacy of their vaccines, it's not great. And the people have no natural immunity. And the virus hasn't gone away.

Andrew Scobell: Exactly. So, that's going to be a big challenge for the regime and how they spin that, too, will be interesting to see.

Julie Mason: But I wonder if slowly reopening, is that going to help their economy? Are they gonna get that going in terms of their economic engine?

Andrew Scobell: I think so. But it'll be a challenge to ease into that and while at the same time trying to manage or mitigate, as you say, the inevitable, which will be a rise in COVID cases.

Julie Mason: And you know, would that rise and do these protests, are they cutting into Xi's power at all? Is he in any way diminished by what's happening?

Andrew Scobell: Not yet. I think there are two impulses motivating these protests. One, people pushing back against hardships they've endured – economic job losses, food shortages. So, very immediate concerns. The other impulse is political aspirations for freedom and even criticisms of Xi Jinping himself. But those two things sort of go together, or one can lead to the other, but I think if the adjustments in policies on the easing of the lockdowns and opening the economy, if those are seen as successful, then I think that will satisfy a good number of people. But if that's botched, then you could see these two impulses motivating protests to reinforce or build upon each other, and you could see what we saw many decades ago back in 1989, where these protests really take off. But I think the chances of that are quite small.

Julie Mason: What about Xi's position among world leaders? How do you think he's viewed?

Andrew Scobell: As a dictator. As a repressive dictator.

Julie Mason: Yeah, an unpleasant reality.

Andrew Scobell: Right, unless it's his old dictator buddy, you know, Vladimir Putin. But for most international leaders, I think his draconian policies, his zero-COVID policy just reinforced the view that many have had in recent years that China's leader is…you're seeing domestically what many countries, leaders have noticed China doing beyond its borders, being more assertive or aggressive or expansionist.

Julie Mason: You know, before I let you go, Andrew, there was a strange story that I read this morning about Beijing setting up more than 100 overseas police stations and various places around the globe to harass, and in some cases, repatriate Chinese citizens living abroad. That just, it was a chilling story.

Andrew Scobell: It is. And that's maybe a new development, but in some ways, it's a logical extension of what we've seen in recent decades. You know, the Chinese party police state and surveillance system exporting itself, monitoring Chinese citizens overseas. I think that's been going on for quite a while, but the development you just mentioned seems to be taking it to a new level.

Julie Mason: Yeah, for sure. Well, Andrew, it's wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much for your insights this morning.

Andrew Scobell: You're welcome.

Julie Mason: Take care.

Andrew Scobell: Thank you.

Julie Mason: Andrew Scobell is a distinguished fellow for China at the United States Institute of Peace.

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