Political Participation in China: What’s Allowed Under Xi?

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Political Participation in China: What’s Allowed Under Xi?

President Xi Jinping has increasingly suppressed online activism and protests about COVID-19 and a variety of other issues. What avenues for political expression do Chinese citizens have?

The latest COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai has sparked some local protests, but the Chinese government is maintaining its controversial zero-COVID policy. This follows a long-standing pattern of citizens struggling to influence national policy, and activism has only gotten harder as restrictions have grown. 

How are people protesting COVID-19 restrictions in Shanghai?

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In response to a surge in COVID-19 cases in March, Shanghai authorities imposed a harsh lockdown in which people were confined to their homes and only allowed to leave for essential reasons. Residents have voiced frustrations about food shortages, housing requisitions, and denial of medical services on social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. Videos of conflicts with authorities and a short documentary detailing residents’ experiences went viral.

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Such dissent has been quickly censored, though authorities appear to be easing some lockdown measures in response. Nonetheless, experts say the popular discontent represents a major challenge for a system in which public criticism has been tightly regulated. 

A security guard sets up a barrier during Shanghai’s lockdown.
A security guard sets up a barrier during Shanghai’s lockdown. Aly Song/Reuters

Does voting in China matter?

For high-level positions such as the mayor of Shanghai, very little. Such officials are among the highest-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and are appointed to their positions by the party. Chinese citizens can elect deputies to the two lowest people’s congresses, representing towns and provinces. These deputies then vote for deputies in the higher congresses, including the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature. Any citizen can stand for local election, but candidates must be preapproved by the CCP. Independent candidates often face intimidation and are rarely elected. 

What are other official avenues for political participation?

Most participation occurs at the local or provincial level. There are various official channels for people to give limited input on bread-and-butter issues, such as land development, environmental regulations, and law enforcement. “The goal [of these channels] is to get people drawn into the political system to some degree, but in a constrained way,” CFR’s Ian Johnson says. He explains that although the CCP takes public opinion into account, more sensitive issues that could undermine its authority, such as the zero-COVID policy, are not up for public debate. 

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There are several government-approved ways to participate in politics, including: 

Public hearings and consultative meetings. In 2018, China’s highest executive body mandated that government departments publish draft laws and field comments from the public for at least thirty days. Since the early 2000s, some cities and provinces have also allowed residents to comment on budgets and policies, such as for construction projects or to address environmental issues, during consultative meetings and public hearings. These opportunities have raised people’s expectations that their opinions will be considered. However, experts say deliberations have limited impact on policy and freedom of participation is suspect. 

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Information requests. Since 2008, citizens have had the right to seek information from all government agencies, with most requests directed at provincial agencies on issues including environmental and land development regulations and education. Activists have also used information requests to raise awareness of gender discrimination and government surveillance. However, the effectiveness of this process is limited by low public awareness, low response rates, and the uncertain quality of the information provided. 

Administrative lawsuits. Citizens have the legal right to sue the government, and the number of cases has grown since the 1990s. However, courts usually rule in favor of the government. 

What are unofficial ways that people can influence policy?

Space for activism in China is constrained, but experts say protests that demand specific changes and do not directly challenge the CCP have had some success. For example, tech workers launched online campaigns to protest the grueling “996” work culture (9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week), which led China’s top court to declare the practice illegal in 2021. In 2019, university student protests on social media resulted in the firing of two professors accused of sexual assault. 

Since President Xi Jinping’s tenure began in 2012, the government has grown more restrictive. Protests over labor conditions, environmental degradation, human rights abuses, and now the pandemic response have faced harsher policing and increased arrests and detentions. Legislation passed in 2015 and 2016 limits the activities of local and foreign NGOs. Pressure on human rights lawyers has also risen. Across news outlets and social media, a wider variety of issues, including feminism and climate change, faces censorship. At the same time, more social media users are under scrutiny. 

How might the current political climate affect prospects for citizen activism?

The CCP is hoping to confirm Xi to an unprecedented third term at the Twentieth Party Congress in October without difficulty. Ahead of previous party congresses, officials heightened surveillance and censorship, and with Xi’s legacy on the line, that could be the case again.

Lynn Hong is an editorial intern at CFR. 

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