The protesters on streets across China know what will follow for them

World

The pictures we have been seeing from China have been astonishing.

People using loudhailers to demand democracy – others calling for freedom, their faces exposed.

We have not seen this for more than three decades for good reason.

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Why are people protesting in China?

China tolerates no political dissent. Dissidents go to jail often for very long times. Under Xi Jinping’s totalitarian rule, their lawyers have been imprisoned too.

The protesters on streets across China know what will follow for them.

There are reports that many who attended protests over the weekend have already been called or texted on their phones by the police using surveillance technology to track them.

“We know what you have been doing” is the message. “Stop or face the consequences.”

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Others have already been arrested and could face years behind bars.

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Police detain screaming protester

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China has been building a massive billion-dollar system of national surveillance to repress and control its people. It is now being put through its paces to sweep up thousands of protesters.

After Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, Chinese authorities bided their time, then rounded up ringleaders using technology to trace them and track them down.

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In Beijing, there are reports police have been one step ahead of protesters, pre-empting protests at locations where they due to be held.

There will be a cat-and-mouse game and it will cost many their liberty.

But the Chinese have shown they are prepared to take the risk. Chinese students sweat blood and tears to gain coveted university places in their hugely competitive society.

But in more than 50 universities it seems students have risked all that by turning out to demonstrate and demand change, such is their strength of feeling.

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I lived through China’s COVID lockdowns for the best part of three years – it’s a miserable existence

China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech following a swearing-in ceremony to inaugurate the city's new leader and government, on the 25th anniversary of the former British colony's handover to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2022. Selim Chtayti/Pool via REUTERS
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China’s President Xi Jinping

China’s authoritarian leader Xi Jinping has big ambitions. Chairman Mao may have united China, Deng Xiaoping made it richer, but he will take it to its rightful place leading the world, he believes, and he is not going to let a few days of unrest jeopardise that.

But he faces a dilemma. He can crack down on these protests tightening the lid of China’s pressure cooker but that might risk further explosions of unrest.

Or he could ease the lockdowns, as the people are demanding.

But China’s health system is not ready for that. Told their infallible leader had beaten the virus, many Chinese – especially the elderly have not been vaccinated – or had all their shots. And there are not enough intensive care beds to cope with an increase in infections.

If the lockdowns ease, COVID will spike and many could die, especially the old. In a country that venerates the elderly, that could be politically disastrous for the government. Either option could only make matters worse.

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