A year ago, while many countries were still reeling from Covid-19, China appeared to be one of the few places to thrive during the pandemic. It was also the only major economy to show growth in 2020. Global investors were bullish on Chinese stocks, even as Beijing’s crackdown on the private sector began to look more like a political campaign.
That led some people in China to argue that the authoritarian one-party rule offered a compelling alternative to traditional liberal democracy. The United States was in decline politically and economically, they said, and the world “tended towards China.” Many Chinese cheered the story online.
A year later, the tone in China is more one of fear, anger and despair. In the past month, hundreds of millions of people there have struggled with lockdowns as coronavirus outbreaks spread across the country. Foreign investors are dumping Chinese equities amid geopolitical, regulatory and pandemic uncertainties. And the government’s support of Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin as he wages war in Ukraine has jeopardized world criticism and possibly sanctions.
It all leads to increasingly anxious questions about the country’s path — and even whether too much power is concentrated in the hands of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, who is seeking a third five-year term in Congress. of the Communist Party late in the year.
On social media, a growing number of citizens accuse the Communist Party of violating its social contract with the people. They had tolerated and sometimes praised a one-party government in return for economic growth and social stability. But strict lockdowns, which are putting pressure on entire cities, and regulatory crackdowns are costing many of them jobs, income, and making their futures look much more uncertain and bleak than a few years ago.
After an official newspaper, Guangming Daily, published a commentary on the government’s persistence in pursuing its “zero Covid” policy, which has led to harsh and unpredictable lockdowns, users on social media platform Weibo posted nearly 10,000 comments, with the vast majority urging the government to end the strategy. “Please read these comments. Please look at the life of ordinary people,” wrote one user named Diqiuren1990. All comments disappeared the next day after the comment feature was turned off.
After the Chinese ambassador to the United States wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post about China’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of social media users on WeChat rushed to comment on a Chinese translation. The vast majority of those reports criticized China’s position of pro-Russia under a veneer of neutrality. “There is no neutrality in the battle between right and wrong,” said one comment. “Stripline between two boats ends, ends only falling into the water.” All those comments were eventually censored as well.
And a viral video headlined “The Demise of China’s Glory and Dream” lamented the disastrous impact of the government’s actions on the private sector. It has appealed to many of the country’s top investors, scientists and entrepreneurs, including a co-founder of Tencent, China’s largest internet company, who had left the company. The video has been removed.
Privately, some academics and businessmen discuss growing concerns about Xi’s focus on competing with the United States and proving the viability of China’s political model — a focus that has turned some concerns into obsession.
Competition between countries, Mr Xi said, is ultimately competition between political systems. The handling of the pandemic “made it clear which country’s leadership and political system is superior,” he told top executives in January 2021. “Time and momentum are on our side.”
Chinese citizens should exercise extreme caution when criticizing Mr Xi, some critics of whom have been sentenced to up to 18 years in prison. Thus, some resort to quoting former top leaders to express frustration that Mr Xi has strayed from the tried-and-true path of reform and opening that has brought the country decades of prosperity.
Some quoted the country’s former supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, as saying that the two countries that had benefited most from China’s invasion were Japan and Imperial Russia, and to some extent the Soviet Union — a roundabout way to tell China to distance itself from Russia.
They shared footage of former president Jiang Zemin dancing with Bernadette Chirac, wife of former French president Jacques Chirac, in 1999. Those were the days when China was more popular in the world.
They quoted former President Hu Jintao’s famous instruction that China should “avoid self-inflicted misfortune”, which one Chinese diplomat interpreted as avoiding political campaigns such as the Cultural Revolution that threw the country into chaos and poverty. That citation in the current context amounts to a not-so-indirect critique of Mr Xi’s prevailing style.
They even used the Soviet Union as an example to prove the danger of a dictatorship. A modern nation “should have the system in place to prevent one person from taking the entire nation over the abyss,” according to an article on WeChat, the social media platform.
The pent-up anger of the public will probably not be enough to influence Beijing’s decision-making or threaten the rule of the Communist Party, which is used to keep people in line by using indoctrination and intimidation. But it marks a departure from the heavy silence that prevailed under Mr. Xi.
Two years ago, China celebrated the merits of its top-down approach by pointing to its success in building a new hospital in Wuhan in just 10 days and containing the spread of the coronavirus in three months. Today, many people regard the makeshift quarantine centers as a symbol of Beijing’s persistent insistence on a costly coronavirus policy that appears to serve primarily to prove the superiority of its system.
The country’s relentless pandemic-fighting measures have been dubbed the “white terror,” a nod to the vast army of community workers wearing white hazmat suits. People have shared videos and photos of protests in which protesters chanted, “We have to work!” and “We need to eat!”
The war between Russia and Ukraine and the world economy
Some commentators said Beijing had squandered its early success in fighting the pandemic because it believed its political will alone would be enough to defeat the virus. They wondered why the government hadn’t spent the massive resources it had devoted to mass testing and quarantines on a vaccination campaign, especially among the elderly. They asked whether Beijing was irresponsible in not approving the more effective Western vaccines for the sake of national pride.
Many accused the government of failing to see the huge sacrifices businesses and individuals had to make, or complained that people were struggling to make ends meet and falling behind on mortgages and other personal loans. They were upset that some people had died of heart attacks, asthma, cancer and other illnesses because hospitals rejected them under Covid mitigation guidelines.
“As long as you don’t die from Covid, you could die for any reason,” says a viral online joke.
Beijing remains unwavering despite public resentment.
“Over the past two years, China has fully demonstrated the significant advantage of its political system and its strong national capacity to contain the pandemic,” said the state-run People’s Daily on Monday. The zero-covid policy is a “line of defense that a nation of 1.4 billion people will have to hold on to,” it said.
Beijing also appeared to be on the heels of backing Russia by publishing a series of official comments blaming US hegemony for the war in Ukraine. On Tuesday, a comment in the People’s Daily called the United States “the initiator” of the war, calling it a “crisis”. On Wednesday, another comment on the same page said the United States is “putting oil on the fire” by providing military aid to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia.
That’s troubling to many who fear Beijing’s pro-Moscow stance could accelerate China’s decoupling from the West, or even lead to Russia-like sanctions that would have huge implications for technology, trade and capital markets. .
“Is it good or bad if China is thrown on the same side of the Iron Curtain as Russia?” the nationalist writer Wang Xiaodong asked his followers on Weibo. His conclusion: China should do its best to avoid the scenario, as it would have to pay an extremely high price.
The only policy area in which Beijing has given way is government crackdown on the private sector. After a sharp sell-off in Chinese stocks in mid-March, China’s economic czar, Liu He, urged government agencies to adopt market-friendly policies and exercise caution when taking measures that could hurt markets.
But China’s political campaign-style crackdown has done its damage. Massive job losses, once rare in China, are taking place in technology, real estate, education and online games, some of the sectors hardest hit by the crackdown. Reports of unemployment are widely shared as gloomy sentiment grips the educated middle class.
“At this historic turning point, we look back to the Golden Age,” read an online post about China’s four decades of economic transformation and dreams of individual prosperity. “We all thought it would be our future,” he said. “It turned out to be an illusory dream.”