The Chinese Dream: Is It Still Alive?
The pandemic and the Zero Covid policy have exacerbated issues that had already emerged. Xi Jinping is facing the first internal protests since Tiananmen. The social contract between the CCP and the citizens needs rethinking.
The Zero Covid protests we are witnessing in China are something peculiar, and the CCP is aware of it. Indeed, it is not rare for Chinese people to protest, but it is truly rare to directly question the leadership of the party and its leader. Generally, demonstrations are underpinned by labour or contract disputes, remaining isolated and localized events. Not this time: mirror protests, showing the same slogans and tactics, spread across the country. Workers, students, rural residents, and middle-class people took to the streets shouting “Gongchandang, xiatai! Xi Jinping, xiatai!”; it can be translated as “Communist Party, step down! Xi Jinping, step down!”.
The policies enacted by the government to contain rising covid cases have exhausted the community. Nowadays, citizens are much more afraid of Covid procedures and isolation rather than of the virus. The lack of flexibility has led the government to an unrealistic approach to the pandemic, which is now showing all its shortcomings. Nonetheless, in order to understand why these protests are different from the past, we need to grab deeper, and consider the pre-covid scenario. Before the advent of the Pandemic, China was already facing a challenging period: after years of astonishing development, economic growth had started to slow down and some critical externalities emerged.
Transition periods are rarely easy. The pandemic and the Zero Covid policy have exacerbated issues that had already started to emerge.
China has undergone an incredible development pattern, with more than 800’000 people lifted out of poverty in less than fifty years. The World Bank defined it as “The fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history”. As a consequence, China has risen to become an economic, military, and political superpower. When Xi came into leadership a decade ago, he promised his country a “Chinese Dream” of restored national greatness by mid-century. Between 2000 and 2010 the average growth rate of the country was 11.4%, so everyone was hopeful. The same narrative was resumed after the XX Congress held in November 2022, when Xi established himself as the most powerful leader in the modern history of China. However, as it is well known, good things don’t last forever: currently, the context is very different from ten years ago and the Chinese people don’t have the same confidence and enthusiasm they had in the past. During the last decade, the Asian Dragon has entered a new phase of its development, featured by the issues of developed economies: the economic growth rate settles to more normal levels, inflation goes up, and so does the unemployment rate in the cities. More importantly, the government has to start dealing with crucial unaddressed issues, such as inequality, an unbalanced economic structure, over-dependence on FDI and exports, and pollution.
To overcome these issues and don’t be stuck into the middle-income trap, it is crucial for an economy to adapt and look forward. The economic model that led China to this stage of development and welfare, is not going to bring the country to the next level. The CCP is aware of it and so it has already engaged in a transition aimed at reaching a more advanced and balanced economy. Scholars labelled it the “new normal”: from an economic point of view, it represents the switch to an innovation-driven model, powered by technological development and services. The long-term goal is to achieve self-reliance, in response to the increasing pressure of the American-led western world. Not an easy task, especially concerning technology which is still heavily dependent on western investments and knowledge spillovers. Chinese growing up in the current century are facing a turbulent economic period, characterised by uncertainty.
As the economy slows down, the social contract between the CCP and the people has to be rethought.
After the death of Mao, ideology gradually lost its appeal over the population, which has been affected by the general secularization brought by globalization. The Deng period introduced a new kind of loyalty, based on economic performance: in this new scenario, the support of the people becomes strictly dependent on the capability of the government to provide them with increasing prosperity. Now that the Chinese economy is struggling, the same is happening to the party’s popularity. The protests we are seeing are the result of a shared feeling of disillusion among the population, especially among the youngest: their present is characterised by uncertainty; the salaries are too low to keep pace with China’s growing inflation and it has become harder for new generations to get by in the big cities.
In addition to economic troubles, people are also increasingly frustrated by the decrease in their personal freedom, a trend that has gotten worse during the Pandemic. Since 2015, Mr Xi has put efforts to re-affirm the monopoly of the party on the hearts and minds of the Chinese. As part of China’s integration into the world economy, the young generations have enjoyed personal freedoms that would have staggered those born in the past century. They watched foreign films, played American video games and travelled abroad. Most of all, they are part of the social media era: this means they have the opportunity to access content and information from all over the world. Indeed digital censorship in China is comprehensive, but it is not perfect, even for China-based apps like WeChat or Weibo; they cannot be totally controlled. As a consequence, the new generations have an eye on the outside world that makes them more critical and demanding.
It would be misleading to compare these protests to what happened in Tiananmen thirty years ago, but Xi Jinping is facing the first internal mass protests since that time.
The wide protests in China are a signal of the growing discontent in the country. They are the result of many issues that have been exacerbated by the Pandemic. In this period of geopolitical instability, it is more important than ever for China to maintain internal stability. For this reason, it is no surprise that the government has decided to relax the covid measures; nonetheless, it might not be enough for the party and Xi to regain the trust and support of the people. And, there is no “Chinese dream” if the people do not believe in it.