China: Terrified of more protests, dictatorship targets young women protesters

The CCP is terrified of radicalizing young women

Elan Axelbank, Socialist Alternative (ISA in England, Wales and Scotland)

(This article was first published on 16 February 2023)

The protests triggered by China’s brutal zero-Covid policy late last year hardly lasted two weeks, but their memory is etched into the minds of top CCP officials, terrified of their return. The whole episode — protests in 40 cities and 100 universities, the chaotic retreat from zero-Covid, likely over one million deaths resulting from the surge that followed — exposed just how bogged down in crisis Xi Jinping’s regime has become, and in turn only weakened it further.

The CCP is caught between a rock and a hard place, a position they’re increasingly finding themselves in, in how to respond. Normally, the dictatorship deals with dissidents harshly and publicly. But if they are too heavy handed with the protesters, they know they risk spurring further unrest. State repression has acted as fuel on the fire to protest movements internationally in recent years, only deepening protesters’ resolve as opposed to quelling it, so top officials know they must tread carefully. On the other hand, if they don’t react strongly enough, they risk sending a message that protest and dissidence is tolerated, a deadly outcome for a crisis-ridden dictatorship.

Faced with the danger of increasing protests over the myriad crises facing Chinese workers and youth, the dictatorship’s solution so far is to quietly go after a select group of protesters who they see as a threat. Young people, and young women in particular, are at the top of the list.

Several of those arrested are recent graduates of universities overseas like Goldsmiths (Li Siqi), University of Westminster (Xin Shang) and the University of Chicago (Qin Ziyi). Many are being charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” which can carry a sentence of up to five years in prison. Others have been released on bail and placed under close supervision for the next year. Despite the CCP’s attempt to keep the crackdown under wraps, attention on the cases increased after the release of a selfie video by Cao Zhixin, an editor at Peking University Press recorded days before she was arrested, saying several of her friends had already been arrested and she knew she would be next. Calls to free the arrested are now spreading across networks of Chinese students studying abroad and other activists in the diaspora.

The CCP is terrified of radicalizing young women

Around 100 people are estimated to have been detained since the protests. Young women in particular have been targeted, and some report being interrogated by police specifically about feminism and LGBTQ issues. The CCP has no doubt taken note of the wave of radicalization of young women internationally and their disproportionately leading roles in recent mass movements and uprisings.

And they have reason to worry what this could mean for China. Young people in general face a multitude of issues caused directly by the CCP’s capitalist dictatorship, and young women are hit even harder. University experience under zero-Covid was a nightmare, only to graduate into an economy with 17% youth unemployment. With the one-child policy becoming two in 2016 and three in 2021, combined with a massive government campaign to encourage higher birth rates, women have an even harder time becoming and staying employed because bosses don’t want to pay for multiple maternity leaves. This has spurred intense discussion online about the need for protections against gender discrimination at work, which currently don’t exist and which capitalists will fight tooth and nail.

A new term, “humine,” has gone viral on social media in recent weeks, to express people’s anger at being treated like “human mines” for exploitation as overworked labor, house buyers and consumers, and children makers. Xi Jinping is waging a campaign to promote “traditional family values,” which is simply capitalist government code for the subjugation of women and offloading the biggest care burden for children and the elderly in a society with extremely weak public services. The term “birth strike” is being used to describe a wave of women refusing to put capitalist GDP over their own desires and wellbeing. All of this points to an increasing frustration of young people, women especially, which can give way down the road to radicalization and political activity on a larger scale, which is precisely what the dictatorship needs to avoid

Free the arrested: Take action March 8

During the wave of protests late last year, solidarity demonstrations took place in dozens of cities worldwide, on university campuses and outside Chinese embassies. International Socialist Alternative participated in protests in Taipei, New York City, Munich, Seattle, Dublin, Boston, and many more. In London, ISA worked with Chinese students to organize a demonstration of nearly 200 people outside the Chinese embassy with anti-dictatorship and anti-capitalist demands and messaging front and center.

More protests are needed, calling to free the arrested protesters and for continued struggle by workers and students against the CCP’s capitalist dictatorship. Given the regime’s targeting of young women in particular, International Women’s Day on March 8 could become a global day of action if the different networks organizing on this issue begin to spread the word. and ISA in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are urging socialist and feminist groups everywhere to please highlight the arrested Chinese women protesters in all activities on International Women’s Day.

More protests on the horizon

The CCP’s targeting of last year’s protesters is not a sign of confidence and strength. Already in 2023, large protests have continued. In early January, 20,000 workers at a Covid test manufacturing plant in Chongqing protested layoffs and stolen wages. On February 8, thousands of retired steelworkers and other retirees protested in Wuhan over the city’s slashing of their monthly medical subsidy from 260 yuan to less than 100 yuan, meanwhile hundreds of millions of elderly people have just been infected with Covid. The protesters declared that if the government didn’t back down they would come back again on February 15.

What the CCP fears most is the fusion of workers’ struggle, around wages, layoffs, working conditions, retirement benefits with democratic struggle, against repression, censorship, and for basic freedoms including women’s rights. The protests against zero-Covid, beginning with workers at the largest iPhone factory in the world fighting against stolen wages, lockdowns, and unsafe working conditions, and spreading to the big cities and universities where demands against censorship and for democratic rights were front and center, were the first glimpse of this on a national scale since 1989.

Contrary to what Western capitalist politicians like Joe Biden say, democracy and capitalism are not, and never will be, compatible. In fact, one need look no further than Biden’s own U.S. where the right to abortion was just eliminated in half the country. The only way to achieve genuine democracy, including women’s control over their own bodies and destinies, is by ending capitalism, in China and worldwide, and replacing it with democratic socialism, which would place human need and wellbeing over profit. Only the working class can lead such a struggle, not capitalists east or west, and while Xi Jinping’s dictatorship can try and delay it through vicious state repression and censorship, they can’t stave it off forever.