Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
It's unclear whether China's strict zero-COVID lockdown resulted in the fiery deaths of 10 people in the western city of Urumqi. But it is clear that the perception it did sparked unusually potent protests against the government's policies — and against the government itself. And while it's unlikely that the courageous challenge to a failed policy will engulf the country in the same manner the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests did in 1989, it's a major crisis for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was just elevated to Mao-like powers by obsequious observers during a recent Communist Party Congress.
Despite his political power, Xi's government is seemingly powerless to contain COVID. Initially the government's lies let the virus spread beyond its origin in Wuhan. Now, nearly three years hence, China reels from relentless lockdowns while most of the rest of the world has been able to reckon with the infection.
That's because Xi is pursuing the wrong strategies, including opting for less-effective Chinese vaccines instead of the proven efficacy of mRNA versions like those developed by Pfizer and Moderna. Vaccination rates are low overall, too, especially among vulnerable older Chinese. Instead, the government, true to its authoritarian nature, has opted for lockdowns that all but imprison citizens (indeed, entire cities). After nearly three years of such constriction, citizens from every sector of society understandably cannot take it anymore and are rebelling — mostly about zero-COVID policies, but increasingly against those responsible for them, including Xi himself.
Some protesters, hoping to evade the nation's Orwellian oppression, have even taken to demonstrating with blank placards, signifying their opposition to censorship — and however unintentionally, reflecting their future under China's communist dictatorship.
A correction on China's zero-COVID strategy is long overdue, including using mRNA vaccines on a vast basis. Lives and livelihoods are at stake (and so is the global economy — a less profound but still important issue). But that would mean Xi and his government admitting errors, something all governments find difficult, but particularly those not responsive to citizens.
In fact, the three authoritarian governments increasingly in alignment against the West are all failing with governing models they hold up as alternatives. China, with its ongoing COVID and even validity crises, is alienating nearly everyone, including the youth the nation desperately needs to address its impending demographic crisis. In Iran, protests over the killing of a young woman for supposedly wearing her mandated headscarf improperly have convulsed the country and further discredited the theocracy, particularly among its burgeoning younger population. And in Russia, where a government of war criminals uses young men as cannon fodder in its immoral, illegal war against Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of others have fled altogether to avoid conscription.
In contrast, despite challenges, the U.S. just held a successful election in which those who would most endanger democracy by denying election results from 2020 or beyond lost their own races. Other democracies, despite increasing challenges, are significantly more responsive to their citizens as well, avoiding the legitimacy crises manifest in repressive regimes in Beijing, Tehran, Moscow and elsewhere.
"The very top-down nature of their government in these [authoritarian] countries while the younger generation is coming up" has resulted in a lot of countries "struggling," Tom Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told an editorial writer.
Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer, added that, "It's interesting that not that long ago, we were the ones seen as having a tarnished model. And there was a sense that all these other countries are handling some things better. And it's kind of flip-flopped: It's looking like we're getting our situation under control."
Indeed it does, relatively speaking. But that can be fleeting. So the U.S. and the West must continue to protect their democracies in order to avoid the mistakes of autocracies, like the ongoing ones in China.