A month ago China’s leadership appeared invincible. President Xi Jinping presided over a Communist Party Congress that appeared to cement his rule and reduce the influence of former leaders and any critics that might be within the party itself. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao was suddenly escorted out of a closing ceremony during the Congress. It was embarrassing for the former leader.

Police officers detain a demonstrator holding a blank board during a protest over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in Shanghai, China, November 27, 2022.

Police officers detain a demonstrator holding a blank board during a protest over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in Shanghai, China, November 27, 2022.

Now China is facing unprecedented protests in Beijing and Shanghai that followed other demonstrations in Urumqi in the northwest, in Chengdu in the southwest and in Xian and Wuhan, according to reports. There were also protests at an iPhone factory.

The protests in China follow two months of protests in Iran. Iran and China are partners and both countries seek to upend the West and the US-led rules-based international order. This isn’t a secret; Iran and China have both openly sought to challenge the US and want a world that is multi-polar, meaning more regional powers and less US power. Russia also is part of this bloc of countries, along with Turkey. However, there haven’t been protests in Turkey or Russia. For that reason, it is worth considering the importance of the protests in Iran and China in light of the fact that the two countries share a type of authoritarian vision and worldview.

COVID-19 outbreak in China

China’s system and its attempt to slowly ascend to a powerful position in the world were often contrasted with the US's role. While the US appeared chaotic, China appeared to have everything sorted out. This trajectory appeared to increase with the outbreak of COVID-19 and China appeared to handle its outbreak “better” than the West. While the West was chaotic, China boasted that its lockdowns worked. Now, three years after the first cases of COVID were discovered in 2019, it appears the lockdown policy may be leading to more protests in China. Beijing has sought to isolate itself in the last few years. In contrast to the period between 1990 and 2020 when China slowly sought to peddle influence and debt to countries in Africa, South America and elsewhere; today China appears more cut off from the world. This has also affected supply chains and the dependence on China that became common in the West. Many countries now want to move manufacturing out of China or find other places to rely on for things like computer chips.

Related video: China: Calls for Xi Jinping to resign as rare COVID rule protests spread across major cities

During the pandemic’s first two years many countries believed China’s boasts about its success. In June 2021, for instance, China said it had administered more than 1 billion vaccine doses. By September 2021, when the US was still in the midst of vaccine disputes, reports in The New York Times and Bloomberg claimed China had “fully vaccinated” more than 1 billion people. By November 2021, China said it had given 75 percent of its population complete vaccination. China also boasted it was providing 1 billion vaccines to Africa. By May 2022 China claimed it had provided some 2.2 billion vaccines to 120 countries. In a time when the West believed vaccines were the main way out of the pandemic, China was the world leader.

Police officers intervene as a demonstrator displays a blank board during a protest over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in Shanghai, China, November 27, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/STAFF)
Police officers intervene as a demonstrator displays a blank board during a protest over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in Shanghai, China, November 27, 2022. 

Now it appears some of the stories coming out of China were not as rosy as they appeared. From the first reports in February by a joint WHO-China study that claimed China had reined in COVID-19; to reports in May 2022 that China hadn’t vaccinated many of its elderly.  It turned out that in June 2022, according to the Sydney Morning Herald some 90 million Chinese citizens over 60 were not vaccinated. But despite claims that this is why China couldn’t end COVID lockdowns; in fact, what we see today is that other factors are likely at work. China uses lockdowns to control people and there has been nothing better for the ruling party than the pandemic in terms of using public health as an excuse to control. China can control who comes to the country, it can control foreign companies and factories doing business in China; it can prepare for conflicts and it can become more isolated and insular; more suspicious of the world, and more nationalist, by pursuing a different strategy. 

Meanwhile, in Tehran, the regime is facing a similar crisis in confidence as China; It is also isolated and it has angered the West by supplying Russia with drones and gambled on the fact that it no longer needs the West. Iran is joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and this is another milestone in the China-Iran connection. But the connection seems to be going off the rails. Both countries are not growing stronger and both authoritarian regimes are now being called into question. Iran has been arresting more and more well-known people, including a niece of the Ayatollah, musicians and others. But the protests are growing. There is no way Iran can ever make this generation forget these protests. China now sits atop a similar volcano. A year ago it looked like Beijing had successfully defeated every tiny bit of dissent, including in Hong Kong. We were told that China had its sights set on Taiwan; and that as Russia was preparing for invading Ukraine, so China might pressure the US support for Taiwan.  

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a setback for Moscow. The West has rallied, first against Russia, but also now the West is more suspicious of China than at any point in the past. Gone are the days when neo-liberals were embracing China and arguing for being open to Chinese technology and all sorts of other forms of influence peddling by Beijing. Similarly, the West is far more suspicious of Iran than a few years ago and is willing to call out the regime regarding the protests. This has weakened Iran’s hand at the UN and in other forums. The end result is that Iran now needs China more than ever. Russia also needs China. The protests in China, however, will lead Iran, Russia and other authoritarians, such as Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan and Central Asian states, to wonder whether the authoritarian world order led by China, Russia, Iran and Turkey really is a model that will work.

Like Iran, China’s leadership will have to weigh how to confront the protests. Too much suppression could backfire. China’s leadership does well when it appears to use the consensus in its favor, getting people to compete to be better citizens for instance, or getting people to want to work within the system. But if the system appears to have cracks, opposition may grow. What some commentators have noted is that protests are not that rare in China, but large protests across many cities at the same time are rare. A month after the leadership seemed to be uniform it may wonder whether its policies of control can work forever.