Insight & Analysis

Recent protests dampen China’s economic outlook

Published: Nov 2022

China has moved to quash the ‘white-paper’ protests that broke out in various cities over the weekend, which were objecting to the government’s continued Covid restrictions. Meanwhile, the dissent – and lockdowns – threaten to dampen investor confidence and the country’s economic outlook.

Dissent is usually dealt with quickly, and harshly, in China and following last weekend’s protests there were reports of harsh clampdowns and increased censorship. There were also reports of how unusual the protests were in a country that has little tolerance for mass demonstrations, with many observers questioning whether the dissent would threaten to destabilise the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Such uncertainty has dampened investor confidence in China. Meanwhile, the government’s pursuit of a zero-Covid policy – which has resulted in continuing harsh lockdowns – also dampens the country’s economic outlook. Recent events have certainly changed the narrative that China has effectively bounced back from the pandemic.

While the rest of the world is seemingly adjusting to life after, or living with, Covid, China has been pursuing a zero-tolerance approach, which has led to harsh restrictions. And people’s patience is running out.

The protests were sparked by a fire that broke out in a high-rise building in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Ten people died and locals argued that the Covid restrictions delayed the rescue efforts, and had they not been in place the people would not have died – accusations the authorities deny. This follows reports of 27 people who died in a bus crash on the way to a quarantine centre in Guizhou, in southwest China – more deaths than were caused by Covid itself. Vigils to mark those deaths sparked similar demonstrations in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities across China, calling for an end to the restrictions, and also to the Xi regime.

The so-called ‘white paper protests’ refer to the blank sheets of A4 paper that protestors have been holding up – a reference to the censorship and national security laws that have banned slogans.

The protests could break out into a much larger movement and destabilise the Xi government, and inspire further protests in other territories like Hong Kong. So far, there are signs that Xi’s zero tolerance is continuing, and the BBC has reported police have been going to homes to check whether people have virtual private networks (VPN) to access the internet or are using banned social media channels such as Twitter and Telegram.

Despite the restrictions on protests, and the increasing censorship – even about reporting on the demonstrations – this does not mean that protests don’t occur in China. According to Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor, which tracks the frequency and diversity of dissent in the country, there were 668 dissent events in the last quarter (from June to September 2022). Kevin Slaten, Project Lead at China Dissent Monitor writes that grassroots protests are frequent in China and the typical protest doesn’t necessarily target the one-party regime. Typically, the protests are against local government and private companies.

However, last weekend’s protests seem to be of a different nature and are directed at the national government. The impact of the demonstrations has already dampened investor confidence, and for an economy the size of China’s, the implications could be significant. The stock markets took a hit on Monday after the weekend’s demonstrations with the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq falling 1.5% and 1.6%, respectively, on concerns that the outlook for China’s economy would be impacted by the protests.

And there have been signs that the unrest is impacting specific corporations. Earlier this month there were reports of violent clashes between staff and security personnel at the largest iPhone factory in the world. Meanwhile, the largest stationery company in China, M&G Stationery, was affected – with a tumbling share price – by a document circulating on social media that claimed sales of A4 paper would be banned in response to the white-paper protests.

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