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Will China's protests mark a new political awakening?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week, China took steps to move away from its draconian zero-COVID policy - this less than two weeks after street protests against the policy shook the nation. China's leaders quickly put an end to those protests, the biggest against the government since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But the fact that protests happened at all presents a new challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

My co-host, Juana Summers, asked two China observers to weigh in. Yangyang Cheng grew up in China in the 1990s and is now a fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center, and Mary Gallagher directs the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Cheng noted that many of last month's demonstrations were led by young people.

YANGYANG CHENG: A lot of them are college-educated youth who demonstrated in the streets of some of the biggest cities. However, predating that, there were also the migrant workers at Foxconn factories who were having violent clashes with security forces and breaking out of their confined factories. And so when we speak about the young people, we should have an idea that demonstrations are not just about shouting slogans in an abstract form about democracy or free expression. There are also very concrete concerns.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Professor Gallagher, you have been following China for a number of decades. From your vantage point, is the relationship between China's older rulers and the young people who make up this generation changing?

MARY GALLAGHER: This younger generation, I think, has a lot of concerns - not just about the most recent lockdowns and also the fire in Xinjiang that led to the deaths of a number of people because the apartment building was barricaded and the firefighters couldn't get in. They have really considerable economic concerns. So it goes back to, I think, just a general feeling that the economy is no longer working out in the same way that it had been for the earlier generations of reform. But in this protest, we also see workers and students connecting these livelihood issues directly to the political system and directly to Xi Jinping himself. And that's something that we really haven't seen since 1989.

SUMMERS: Do either of you see the potential for this being the start of a widespread democratic movement like the one that we saw in Tiananmen Square back in 1989?

GALLAGHER: I mean, for me, personally, I am very skeptical that these protests could evolve in that direction - not because there isn't a feeling from below that people are upset and that people do want change. I do think that that is the case, but I do not believe that the government will ever tolerate protests to become as large and as dynamic as they were in 1989. And we already see that - just a hugely increased police presence. I think people are learning very quickly this message that these things won't be tolerated.

CHENG: I think - well, I wasn't born during the protests in '89 yet. But I think I've grown a bit wary about this public imagination that, whenever there is some kind of widespread demonstration in China, the - or in the Chinese territories, including Hong Kong - the immediate analogy is Tiananmen. However, for up to a million people to gather in the nation's capital, it requires a certain degree of freedom in society. And at that time, a lot of that was predicated on fractions within the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, that some were rather more liberal and sympathetic to the protesters, which included both students and workers. And now what we've seen is that Xi Jinping has consolidated power really to an unprecedented level for the past few decades, and so that condition is not there.

SUMMERS: To either of you, what do you think it is that has emboldened young people of this generation in China to speak out in a way that we have not seen from some other generations?

GALLAGHER: These are students that - and workers - who did not experience the 1980s. They did not experience a China that was closed. They experienced only successful, integrated, global China. And up until the reign of Xi Jinping, when he took over in 2012, 2013, there were really very few political constraints on them, in the sense that, as long as they didn't oppose the government, they had widespread social and economic freedom as well as cultural freedom in terms of how they consumed social media. And it's only the recent years that we've seen this really diminish and close down.

So I agree with Yangyang that these protests - they come out and are sparked by zero-COVID, but they go, I think, more directly to a feeling that the youth have that China is no longer opening, that China is closing and that they are, you know, the generation that's going to have to go through this. And it's really - the idea of a political awakening is really right. I had a student yesterday say to me that, until she saw these protests, she had never heard the general secretary of the party be condemned. She had never heard that in her life.

CHENG: Yeah, it is the same for me as well. This is the first time I've heard the Chinese language being used in a public setting in such a radical fashion in some of these protest slogans. And that, by itself, is an exercise of agency and is a manifestation of power that shows potential and possibilities.

SUMMERS: Mary Gallagher directs the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, and Yangyang Cheng is a fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center. Thanks to you both.

CHENG: Thank you so much.

GALLAGHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.