Covid, Russia and the economic crisis are testing the Chinese model

new York:

A year ago, when many countries were still reeling from Covid, China seemed to be one of the few places thriving during the pandemic. It was also the only major economy to register growth in 2020.

Global investors were bullish on Chinese stocks even as Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on its private sector looked more like a political campaign. This has led some in China to argue that its authoritarian one-party rule offers a compelling alternative to traditional liberal democracy.

The United States was declining politically and economically, they said, and the world was “gravitating toward China.” Many Chinese people applauded the story online.

A year later, the tone in China is rather one of anxiety, anger and despair. Over the past month, hundreds of millions of people have battled lockdowns as coronavirus outbreaks have spread across the country.

Foreign investors are dumping Chinese stocks due to geopolitical, regulatory and pandemic uncertainties. And the government’s support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as he wages war in Ukraine has risked criticism from the world, and potentially sanctions.

All of this leads to increasingly anxious questions about the country’s path – and even whether too much power has been concentrated in the hands of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, who is seeking a third five-year term. at the Communist Party Congress at the end of the year. On social media, a growing number of citizens accuse the Communist Party of breaking its social contract with the people. They had tolerated, and sometimes praised, one-party rule in return for economic growth and social stability.

But its strict lockdowns, which are straining entire cities, and its regulatory crackdowns are costing many jobs and incomes and making their futures far more uncertain and bleaker than they were a few years ago.

After an official newspaper published a comment on the government’s persistence in pursuing its “zero-COVID” policy, which led to severe and unpredictable lockdowns, users of the social media platform Weibo posted nearly 10,000 comments, with the majority urging the government to end the strategy.

“Thank you for reading these comments. Please look at the life of ordinary people,” wrote a user called Diqiuren1990. All comments disappeared the next day after the comment function was disabled.

After China’s Ambassador to the United States wrote an opinion piece on China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of social media users on WeChat rushed to post comments on a Chinese translation. The vast majority of these messages criticized the position of China, which is pro-Russian under a veneer of neutrality. “There is no neutrality in the struggle between justice and evil,” one comment read. “Striding between two boats will only end up falling in the water.” All of these comments have also been censored.

And a viral video with the title “The Disappearance of China’s Glory and Dream” lamented the disastrous impact of the government’s crackdown on the private sector. He was liked by many of the country’s top investors, academics and entrepreneurs, including a co-founder of Tencent, China’s biggest internet company, who had left the company. The video has been deleted. Privately, some academics and businesspeople are discussing growing concerns about Xi’s desire to compete with the United States and prove the viability of the Chinese political model – a concern some worry about has become an obsession.

Competition between countries, Xi said, is ultimately competition between political systems. The handling of the pandemic “has highlighted the superiority of the country’s leadership and political system,” he told senior staff in January 2021. “Time and momentum are on our side. Chinese citizens should be extremely careful when criticizing Xi, some of whose critics have been sentenced to 18 years in prison. Some are therefore resorting to quoting former top leaders to express their frustration that Xi has strayed from the tried and true path of reform and opening up that has provided the country with decades of prosperity.

Some have quoted the country’s former supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, as saying that the two countries that benefited the most from China’s invasion were Japan and Imperial Russia, and to some extent the Soviet Union – a a roundabout way of saying that China should distance itself from Russia.

They shared footage of former President Jiang Zemin sharing a dance with Bernadette Chirac, the wife of former French President Jacques Chirac, in 1999. It was the time when China was more popular in the world.

They cited former President Hu Jintao’s famous instruction that China should “avoid self-inflicted setbacks”, which a Chinese diplomat interpreted as avoiding political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution that plunged the country into the chaos and misery. Citing this in the current context amounts to a not so indirect criticism of Xi’s style of government.

They even used the Soviet Union as an example to prove the peril of dictatorship. According to a post on WeChat, the social media platform, a modern nation “should have the system to stop one person from tipping the whole nation over the edge”.

Pent-up public anger is unlikely to be enough to sway Beijing’s decision-making or threaten the power of the Communist Party, which has a history of keeping people in check using indoctrination and intimidation. But it marks a break with the heavy silence that has prevailed under Xi’s rule.

Two years ago, China celebrated the merits of its top-down approach by highlighting its success in building a new hospital in just 10 days in Wuhan and containing the spread of the coronavirus in three months.

Today, many people see the makeshift quarantine centers as a symbol of Beijing’s stubborn insistence on an expensive coronavirus policy that seems primarily to serve to prove the superiority of its system.

Beijing also appears to have been hesitant to support Russia by issuing a series of official comments blaming US hegemony for the war in Ukraine. A People’s Daily comment on Tuesday called the United States the “initiators” of the war, which it called a “crisis.”

Another comment on the same page on Wednesday said that the United States was “adding fuel to the fire” by providing military assistance to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia.

This is troubling to many who fear that Beijing’s pro-Moscow stance could hasten China’s decoupling from the West, or even lead to Russia-like sanctions that would have huge implications on technology, trade and capital markets.

“Is it good or bad if China is thrown on the same side of the Iron Curtain as Russia? nationalist writer Wang Xiaodong asked his followers on Weibo. His conclusion: China should do its best to avoid the scenario because it would have to pay an extremely high price.

But China’s political campaign-style regulatory crackdown has done some damage. Massive job cuts, once rare in China, are occurring in technology, real estate, education and online gaming, some of the industries hardest hit by the crackdown.

Messages about unemployment are widely shared as a gloomy sentiment grips the educated middle class. “At this historic juncture, we look back to the Golden Age,” read an online article about China’s four decades of economic transformation and dreams of individual prosperity. “We all thought that would be our future,” he said. “It turned out to be an illusory dream.”

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