Triumphal Return of Protest
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 30 ,2022
Interestingly, public protest suddenly is back as a desired and praised political tactic.
At least it seems that protest is good as long as it involves the Other Guys.
The media and various officials seem almost gleeful in reporting that thousands — no, tens of thousands — are out in the streets in cities in China to protest the never-ending lockdowns ordered as part of Draconian covid restrictions, yelling — through masks — for their government to resign or change direction.
In recent weeks, public protests in Iran over rights for women have all but brought applause from the White House and a bipartisan Congress, much as the continuing rise of pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong or anti-draft protests in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Iranian protests have spilled into public view as part of the World Cup soccer matches.
Indeed, the Global Protest Tracker at Carnegie’s Endowment for Global Peace, is following 400 political protests around the world in 132 countries with 23% lasting more than three months.
Of course, the same people in the United States who salute anti-covid protests in Shanghai and other Chinese cities hate the idea of Black Lives Matter street protests in this country over policing and economics. Republican leaders in Congress even use perceived excesses of Left-leaning protests as excuses for the violence that marked the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol.
As always, it is fascinating to hear would-be U.S. patriotic calls for more protest elsewhere while denouncing much milder versions here at home.
Looking at China’s Protests
in Shanghai and other cities in China, demonstrators have been taking to the streets to say they have had it with Chinese lockdowns that are proving ineffective at stopping covid spread, but overly effective at interfering with normal lives — keeping people from going to work or having access to food and medicine.
A fatal fire killing 10 was being blamed on the anti-covid rules because firefighters could not get to the site.
Yelling and waving sheets of blank white paper or flowers to stay just inside of protest rules, those protesting are becoming an important and notable sign of defiance — and a call for democracy. Chinese authorities who are ordered to brook no public dissent, are rounding up protesters by the bushelful, burnishing the image of a bully-like government.
The Chinese government on Monday blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for linking that deadly fire to strict Covid measures. The government has unleashed often brutal policing to sweep protesters from the streets, and yet, rnotably, the protests are growing.
Whatever the official lines, what is remarkable is protest at all, the rarest and most fundamental of rights, is rising within authoritarian China. Still, record-breaking covid numbers have not receded, impacting China’s economic prospects and everyday life.
The Associated Press notes that China is the only major country that still is fighting the pandemic through lockdowns and mass testing.
Indeed, the split screen of seeing protests over lockdowns simultaneously with images of tens of thousands of maskless soccer fans screaming at matches and overfilled U.S. airports with few masks is somehow disconcerting.
Importance of Protest
We ought to remember that democracy depends on protest, the gathering of people who are angry, skeptical, passionate and want to demand some change.
In that context, protests over policing, women’s rights, gay and personal lifestyle choice, abortion policy and the long list of other public issues ought to be embraced as a chance to engage rather than a demand to call in uniformed authorities and heavy equipment to halt any seeming dissent.
Over time, America has made clear that without public protest, we would not have expansion of civil rights without protest, we wouldn’t have a healthy debate over war policies, immigration or abortion. A whole generation grew up on antiwar protest. At some point, we look to the streets to determine whether a particular policy is meeting with large-scale dissatisfaction.
It is not at all clear that protests in Shanghai will have curative effect on central government policy making about covid or anything else in China. Nor can we expect that the Iranian theocracy is going to come to its senses about the rights of women or that Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, will think anew about whether continuing a fruitless invasion of Ukraine with conscripts in pursuit of restoring a Russian empire makes any lasting sense.
But it is a welcome sign that everyday people in these countries — as well as in the United States — can still get upset enough to bring politics to the streets.