Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Why the public mood in China contrasts with the party state’s triumphalism, NATO deems Beijing a source of “systemic challenges,” and Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves the mainland for the first time since the start of the pandemic—to visit Hong Kong.
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As Party Congress Approaches, What’s the Public Mood?
As the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approaches, officials are falling over themselves to lavish praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping—the supreme leader, the helmsman, the core of the nation. Xi will secure a norm-breaking third term as party chairman at the congress, which is held only every five years.
Hyperbolic flattery of the powerful is normalized in Chinese political language; the average official on an inspection tour is often described in terms that would make North Korean leader Kim Jong Un blush. But the volume of praise required for Xi—from the top levels of the party state down—grows by the year. His third term as party chairman will only increase that.
This year has seen wish-casting by some outsiders, such as billionaire George Soros, that Xi might be blocked from a third term. There is no sign of this beyond the usual churn of the expatriate and dissident rumor mill. At the CCP’s congress, the fight against COVID-19 will likely be used as one of the chief legitimizing factors for Xi’s continued rule. Shanghai just declared its disastrous two-month lockdown “completely correct,” and state rhetoric continues to emphasize victory and Xi’s leadership.
This triumphalism contrasts with the public mood. Frustration over COVID-19 restrictions is increasing—and not just over lockdowns but regarding the constant testing, limitations on travel, and sense that China is shutting itself off from the world. Among the upper middle class, there is growing anxiety about this inward turn. In Shanghai, some families have started stockpiling English textbooks in case the subject is removed from the national curriculum. Those with money are voting with their feet, as the new term runxue (run-ology, the art of leaving) indicates.
Although it’s still possible for people to express discontent with China’s zero-COVID policy online, that is not the case for general frustration with Xi-ism. Still, circumlocutions abound. Euphemism came to the fore when the term “West Korea” became online code for an increasingly dictatorial China.
Xi’s initial anti-corruption campaign in 2013 led to a genuine well of support, but that has faded as bribery and extortion return and crackdowns on free speech continue. Even for those without strong feelings about Xi, the surplus of political meetings and speeches associated with upholding his leadership likely grates. Even ordinary workers have to sit through these events, but they’re particularly burdensome for CCP members, especially those who joined the party in one city and now work in another.
Most people in my experience find such events a boring imposition—but they have become routine. Meanwhile, Marxist studies is increasingly an in-demand degree, with young graduates trained in the tedium of Xi Jinping Thought.
There is no plausible route to translate this public frustration into meaningful action. Inside the party state, the security services are more prominent than ever—and Xi has just secured his already tight control over them by appointing a long-term ally, Wang Xiaohong, as minister of public security. Wang will take over institutions that underwent a purge last year. Indeed, Xi has shown a willingness to swiftly excise any potential threat while the public faces a surveillance system strengthened by the pandemic and determined to quash dissent.
None of this means that public discontent will just go away. But it could lead to slow brain drain, growing ideological and economic stagnation, and bubbling anger that could produce protests—however quickly suppressed. As with former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his successors, the moment of danger for the Chinese political system will probably come after Xi, when a new leader attempts reform and long-restrained frustration can be expressed in public at last.
NATO takes a new stance. The public strategy unveiled at NATO’s summit in Madrid this week means the alliance now officially deems China a source of “systemic challenges.” After Russia, China is the second-most mentioned country in the plan, said to challenge NATO’s “interests, security, and values” as well as subverting the international order through hybrid tactics and coercive diplomacy.
Although making China a NATO priority has been a U.S. goal for years, Beijing’s support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine has hardened attitudes within Europe. Leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea attending the Madrid summit pointed to a growing role for NATO in aiding U.S. allies in the Pacific—part of the agenda since 2020.
Against a backdrop of anti-Western sentiment that characterizes Xi’s rule, China’s own attitude toward Russia’s war in Ukraine is shaped in part by its view that NATO is driving the conflict. Beijing is likely to paint NATO’s latest move as Cold War rhetoric, but its own media and diplomats have been more aggressive in their descriptions of NATO. Some officials in Beijing may now regret getting so close to Moscow, but there is little sign of any change in tone or policy as a result.
Five years of zero-COVID? After a misleading report that a CCP official said China’s zero-COVID policy would remain in place for five years, panic spread quickly online. The most likely explanation is that the report confused “at least part of the next five-year period,” which demarcates a period of economic planning, with “five years.” However, don’t expect the COVID-19 restriction system to fade away any time soon. Outbreaks in Beijing and Shanghai now appear to be under control; given the omicron variant’s transmissibility, reopening remains a fragile process.
In a sign of relative confidence, isolation time for international travelers was cut from between 14 and 21 days to just 10 days. That won’t mean a return to tourism or regular travel, but it may reassure some business travelers.
Xi visits Hong Kong. On July 1, Xi will make his first trip outside of the Chinese mainland since the start of the pandemic. It’s not a very long trip—just over the border to Hong Kong, where the city’s breakneck integration into the mainland’s legal and political system continues apace. Xi’s visit will mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule. Meanwhile, Hong Kongers have spent the two years since the introduction of Beijing’s national security law taking up British passports in unprecedented numbers.
Against Big Tech. China’s campaign against the technology industry is rumbling on despite some pullback this year due to fears of economic slowdown. New laws target giant platforms such as Weixin (or WeChat) with punishments for “monopolistic behavior.” As it did throughout the crackdown, the Chinese government has mixed genuine concern over the exploitation of users with a desire to demonstrate total control of the state.
New regulations for video streaming—one of the most popular forms of media in China—require that streamers be “qualified” to discuss law, medicine, or education if they cover those topics as well as going after dissidents and banned artists.
Online research blocked. The exclusion of most outside journalists, researchers, and academics from China—for both political and public health reasons—has led to a new emphasis on digital research in recent years. Until now, researchers have been helped by local government policy, which emphasized putting information, such as court cases, online. But the government is now clued in to outside researchers using Chinese materials to demonstrate things like forced sterilization in Xinjiang or the use of bidding documents to expose the spread of the surveillance state.
Any potentially sensitive material is now rapidly being taken offline, with the country’s largest academic research database, China National Knowledge Infrastructure, under investigation by the Chinese authorities. Other databases, such as property and business registrations, are likely to see similar measures, with material either removed or made accessible only to people with a mainland ID card.
Imagined histories. China has comprehensively blocked Wikipedia since 2019, but it remains popular for users with virtual private network access or those in the diaspora. Sixth Tone reports that one of those users embarked on a work of systematic historical fiction, creating an entire faked history of medieval and early modern Russia that dominated Chinese-language Wikipedia for years.
Chinese users have applauded the unknown author’s writings as a masterpiece of Borgesian fiction. It’s a reminder of how creative the Chinese internet can be when the authorities don’t get in the way. Chinese authors have produced thousands of online historical, fantasy, and science fiction novels, some of which make it to the mainstream market after heavy censorship.
That’s often not for directly political reasons but because supernatural content is frowned upon by the censors, so magical elements, for instance, have to be given pseudoscientific explanations a la Scooby Doo to get a conventional publishing deal.