Dissent In Post-Covid China
As China’s economy sputters, expressions of dissent proliferate.
“We are fully confident,” Chinese Premier Li Qiang told the World Economic Forum in late June. “[We] have the ability to promote the high quality development track of China’s economy over a long period of time.” He spoke in the context of widespread fears over the country’s economy, which appears to be stagnating. The Premier’s tone was one of bullish over-compensation: the Communist Party knows it desperately needs to whip up confidence, both inside and outside China.
Zero-COVID’s economic toll was staggering. To pluck just a single example from three years of chaos: when Guangzhou experienced a few hundred Covid cases in early summer 2021, authorities responded by testing 32 million people. This cost them $1 billion. By 2022, some districts in Beijing had simply run out of money with which to pay testing companies and security firms to enforce restrictions. As a consequence, Xi Jinping’s ferocious and unforgiving Zero-COVID policy had already begun to break down in some parts of the country, even as frustration at its persistence prompted the Sitong Bridge Protest and the White Paper Revolution.
In the months since reopening, the economy has not recovered. China’s youth unemployment rate soared to record heights in April and then rose still higher in May. That same month, exports shrank and manufacturing activity slumped. In recent weeks, Party leaders have held six desperate consultations with business leaders and economists, hoping for fresh ideas on how to jump-start China’s listless economy. The advice has been very simple: adopt a more market-oriented approach to growth.
This is actually something that Xi tried multiple times in the past, failing repeatedly, and resorting after each failure to the comfortable, reassuring familiarity of central planning. Indeed, China’s president began his tenure in a decidedly liberal mood: “The market should be left to decide the price of anything whose price can be decided by the market, and the government should not make any improper intervention,” he wrote in his “manifesto” of 2013. In the early days of Xi’s regime, businesses were permitted to invest overseas directly, major financial technology firms were given considerable freedom, and pilot programs were introduced to teach business directors how to make leadership decisions. But the CCP quickly reversed course on all policies, with capital controls reimposed on investment, with a crackdown on the peer-to-peer lending needed for tech growth, and with the Party resuming control of all corporate affairs at state firms. At its core, the CCP is deeply resistant to economic liberalization, even as China’s long-term economic health demands it.
For now, the main issue is lack of trust among the Chinese public. Migrant workers have been reluctant to return to the country’s giant factory hubs, after their experience of extended separation from families during Zero-COVID. Millions lost their jobs over the past three years; many more found that their salaries were paused or reduced each time a new lockdown began. Some residents of Shanghai faced the very real possibility of starvation during the city’s mammoth lockdown of spring 2022, when the government failed to provide food. And now the storm clouds of imminent war hang over the region. It should hardly surprise us today that citizens don’t dare to spend.
So what does economic stagnation mean for dissent? The unspoken agreement in post-Mao China has always been that the Party will make the people rich, and in return the people will not worry themselves over personal liberties. As the economy slowed in the 2010s, Xi sought to replace that implicit contract with new ones. Rather than wealth, one alternative contract promised security. Another was brutally simple—nationalism. Chinese people have been encouraged to rally round the flag and hate outsiders. It’s working. In 2020, The New York Times reported that efforts at taming Covid were “giving rise to an increasingly strident blend of patriotism, nationalism, and xenophobia, at a pitch many say has not been seen in decades.” Expats have described being routinely kicked out of restaurants, avoided in elevators and subways with the perception that they were more likely to transmit Covid, and harassed in public. In September 2022, the chief epidemiologist of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged Chinese, as a putative health measure, to avoid contact with foreigners—a warning that was soon amplified across social media.
Will jingoism be enough to secure the nation’s loyalty, as wealth prospects continue to decline for the average person? The emerging danger for the CCP is that fervent nationalism and discontent with the authorities may not be mutually exclusive. Large protests have continued since the dramatic events of late 2022. In February, hundreds of senior citizens demonstrated in Wuhan and Dalian after the government reduced funds that had been available to the elderly for medical care, rendering some medications unaffordable. (Over the coming years, as China’s skewed demographics distort more and more wildly, seniors in their swelling numbers will prove a persistent headache for the Party.)
The protesters sang the socialist anthem “The Internationale,” as well as traditional Chinese patriotic songs. Both of these were implicit rebukes. For protesters to sing “The Internationale” sends a message that the Communist Party is being insufficiently communist. The singing of patriotic songs, meanwhile, will be particularly disturbing to authorities. Having spent decades encouraging hyper-nationalism, Beijing knows that this passion must be watched carefully for signs that it may wriggle out of control and turn against the government—China versus the Party.
For now, large-scale, explicitly anti-CCP protests have stalled. This tells us nothing about the true level of dissent. Think back to autumn 2022: some kind of breakdown might have been predictable after the strains and fatigues of Zero-COVID, but no one could have imagined that anti-lockdown protesters would start calling for democracy and for the removal of Xi Jinping. Seasoned China-watchers were stunned. “Just as we thought civil society had collapsed,” said the human rights lawyer Lu Miaoqing, “tens of thousands of people took to the streets.” We have no idea how long revolutionary fury had been seething below the surface of China’s “harmonious” society. Now that we’ve seen widespread insurrection explode into view, we know it exists, even in periods of apparent calm.
There are still sporadic radical protests. Earlier this month, a woman flung around flyers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence at a concert in Beijing. She was violently removed by security guards. These are scenes that we did not see before Bridge Man. Something has profoundly changed. It seems likely that the events of 2022 wakened the passion of citizens who had long nursed private grievances. Whether or not they participated in those protests, they saw for the first time that others across the nation shared their frustrations, and they were galvanized.
Dissent may take non-traditional forms. Zero-COVID may be thought of as a vast psychological petri-dish: the results include much that the CCP did not intend and could come to regret. Having been told for three years that catching the virus was the worst thing imaginable, some citizens find themselves unable to simply reset. They continue to wear face masks whenever leaving the house. They lock themselves down whenever virus cases begin to rise. Some imprison their infants in tiny hazmat suits and keep a room in their homes where they use ultraviolet light to disinfect anything brought in from outside. These are the fangyi dingzihu, or “Zero-COVID nail houses.” There is talk of escaping the virus-ridden cities and establishing Zero-COVID communities up in the mountains—a prospect likely to terrify the Party, with its mortal fear of independence, of eccentricity, of citizens relying on anything other than the central authorities.
Chinese society has never been the homogenous monolith that the Party pretends to represent; the faceless collective that some mainlanders obediently evoke for foreigners (Chinese people think x, Chinese people don’t like y, etc). Like all large human groups, “China” contains tremendous diversity. In the messy aftermath of Zero-COVID, we are likely to see the simultaneous rise of virulent nationalism, of courageous anti-Party dissent, and of myriad strange and varied forms of non-political nonconformity.
Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield, currently focusing on China and the CCP.
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