Protests in China could usher in a ‘more authoritarian’ era of Xi, analyst says

Police form a cordon during a protest against China’s strict zero COVID measures on November 27, 2022 in Beijing, China.

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The weekend’s eruption of protests in China could mark the start of a “more authoritarian” era in President Xi Jinping’s rule, an analyst warned on Monday, as Beijing appeared to be reaching a critical crossroads in its zero- Covid.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of major cities on Saturday and Sunday to demonstrate against China’s tough Covid-19 measures, which have seen lockdowns, mass testing and widespread restrictions persist nearly three years since the start of the pandemic.

The protests present one of the most overt rejections of the authority of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in decades, and a clear affront to Xi’s “zero-Covid” policies, the economist in China told CNBC on Monday. head of TS Lombard for China.

“They are widespread and, above all, [they are] the first protests in a very long time that go against a policy of the central government – ​​and which is very closely associated with Xi Jinping. So they’re incredibly important,” Rory Green told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe.”

Growing pressure on Xi

While Green said it was important not to “over-extrapolate” the weekend’s events, he added it could put pressure on the Chinese leader to clamp down on dissent.

“It increases the pressure on Xi Jinping, and I think it probably pushes him towards a more authoritarian approach to governance in China,” Green added.

The unrest – which included open calls in Shanghai for Xi to step down and the detention of foreign journalists — has been well documented in the international press. But coverage in China has been somewhat limited due to strict government censorship rules and media control.

As such, Xi’s CCP could further suppress public protests, Green noted. Such was the case during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on the Chinese mainland.

The Zero-Covid strategy persists

The party is also likely to continue to pursue a hard line in its Covid strategyas cases hit record highs even as citizens had anticipated an easing of measures.

“In the short term, Covid policy will only be fine-tuned without moving the needle,” said Bruce Pang, chief economist and head of research for Greater China at JLL, on Monday.

“The focus of the stories should oscillate between eliminating cases and taking more specific action,” he added.

Protests in China are serious for Beijing because they are so widespread, says CNBC's Ted Kemp

This will add downward pressure on the country’s already struggling economy. In the third quarter, China’s growth for the year was just 3%, well below the official target of around 5.5%.

TS Lombard’s Green said he thinks real GDP growth is unlikely to exceed 1% over the next six months as the county struggles to emerge from its “Covid coma”.

“The picture for the economy is grim. We believe China will remain in this Covid coma until at least the second quarter of 2023,” he said.

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