The rare street protests that erupted in cities across China over the weekend were a referendum against President Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy and the strongest public defiance during his political career, China analysts said.
Not since the protests of Tiananmen Square in 1989 have so many Chinese risked arrest and other repercussions to take to the streets over a single issue.
"During Xi Jinping’s 10 years in power, these are the most public and most widespread displays of anger by the citizenry against government policy," said Bates Gill, a China expert with Asia Society.
Public dissatisfaction with Xi's zero-COVID policy, expressed on social media or offline in the form of putting up posters in universities or by protesting, is Xi's biggest domestic challenge since the 2019 protests in Hong Kong against an extradition bill.
Xi had claimed personal responsibility for leading the "war" against COVID-19, justified zero-COVID with a need to "put people above everything" and counted his "correct" COVID policy among his political achievements when he sought a precedent-breaking third term at the 20th Communist Party Congress in October.
Nearly three years into the pandemic, China says its policies are not geared towards having zero cases at all times but instead, are about "dynamically" taking action when cases surface.
Even though the protests are embarrassing for Xi, they come nowhere near to toppling him, analysts said, because he has full control of the party, military, security and propaganda machinery.
While some protesters chanted "Down with Xi Jinping, Down with Chinese Communist Party," most other people only concerned themselves with resisting a lockdown of their residential compounds or exemption from frequent tests for the virus.
"Once these self-interests are met, most people will be appeased and will move on," said Chen Daoyin, a former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, now a commentator based in Chile.
Students were not highly organized or led by a central figure, Chen said. Protests took place in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chengdu and Urumqi.
At the time of the Tiananmen protests and crackdown by Chinese authorities, the last occasion that demonstrations led to the replacement of the party's general secretary, there were internal divisions amongst top party leaders about how to manage the crisis and what path to take China in future.
Not the case with Xi. With the Congress, Xi renewed his term as party leader and military commander-in-chief and placed his acolytes in all the important positions in the party. Leaders who have previously expressed contrarian views or governed in a different style from him were marginalized.
Although this authoritarian arrangement allowed Xi to be more powerful, it also contains vulnerabilities, as exposed by the protests, analysts said.
"By only surrounding himself with people who say the things he like to hear, Xi traps himself in an echo chamber, which could've led him to underestimate or be out of touch with how much people have suffered from his COVID policy," said Lance Gore, a China expert at East Asian Institute in Singapore.
The protests magnify what has been a mounting predicament for Xi: how to walk back from a policy that was initially a point of pride but is becoming a growing liability.
If he were to bend to public pressure and roll back zero-COVID, he would appear weak, which might encourage people to take to the streets in future whenever they want change.
"If he lets go, it would mean that his past zero-COVID policy has completely failed and he would have to take responsibility for it. This makes him lose face," said Teng Biao, Chinese human rights activist, lawyer and scholar.
It is not in Xi's character to give in, the analysts said.
Xi has emphasized the need to prevent a "color revolution," or anti-government protests, most recently when he spoke at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan in September. He has also lamented in a closed-door speech that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed because no one was "man enough" to rise to the challenge.
If he were to change course on his COVID-19 policy before China was prepared, it could lead to widespread illness, death, and an overwhelmed medical system, consequences that are hard to swallow.
But if he brazens through before finding a way to declare victory and dial back, he risks more anger from an increasingly fed-up citizenry while economic growth sputters.
Xi tried tweaking the zero-COVID policy with the release of "20 measures" last month, in an attempt to standardize prevention measures nationwide and make them friendlier to residents and to the economy.
But as Xi has not officially renounced the need to curb all outbreaks, many local authorities are still erring on the side of caution and implementing stricter lockdowns and quarantine rules than stipulated in the "20 measures."
"At this stage they seem to be clueless," said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
"On the one hand, Xi Jinping and his faction seemed to be all powerful. But at the same time, ... we see a total absence of response from the new administration."
© 2023 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.