The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Unease rattles China’s invincible facade

China’s President Xi Jinping in Pretoria, South Africa, on July 24. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
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It has become fashionable to say that China is beating the United States. China is beating America in the trade war, the tech race and the competition in the South China Sea (or replacing the United States in the Western Pacific). Analysts make China look like a winner and the United States and the current administration look like losers.

However, they tend to overlook something important: China. That’s right. The very subject of this speculation gets lost. In the effort to criticize the Trump administration, China has become a straw man, a place with ever-increasing power, graphs that always go up and a permanently stable political system, in contrast to the failing United States.

This is unfortunate because there seems to be something important happening in China. My friends there describe an overwhelming feeling of unease — about the economy and the political system, relations with the United States and the future of China’s opening to the West, which over the past 40 years has brought China so much success, wealth and happiness. This malaise is emerging against a backdrop of a slowing economy, a scandal affecting hundreds of thousands of children’s vaccines, the continued challenges of cleaning China’s air and water and providing food safety, and an aging population. That’s certainly one area where China is beating the United States: This year, healthy life expectancy in China is expected to surpass the United States’ for the first time.

In a remarkable essay called “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” published late last month, the constitutional scholar Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University captured the feelings of many Chinese people when he questioned whether China’s reforms and opening up policies “are being terminated and whether totalitarian rule will return.”

For decades, Xu wrote that the rule of the Chinese Communist Party was predicated on an implicit social contract comprising four articles. The first held that the party would focus on improving China’s economy and would end the political campaigns that had wreaked so much havoc on Chinese society and destroyed so many lives. Second, the party would switch from criminalizing private property to protecting it, recognizing “the desire of China’s billions to own something.” Third, the party would tolerate a certain minimum standard of personal freedom. People would postpone their desires for a more democratic system, Xu writes, “because at least if I get a new hairstyle I don’t have to look to an official for his OK.” Limits that held China’s senior leaders to two five-year terms made up the fourth leg. Xu observed that the term limits gave people “a sense of political security” because, in the end, “it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s only going to be 10 years.”

Now, however, Xu argues in his essay, this contract is being ripped up by the regime of China’s strongman, Xi Jinping. Earlier this year, Xi forced through a rewrite of China’s constitution, ending term limits and clearing the way to declare himself president for life. State-run media has lionized the president in a way that’s reminiscent of the cult of personality that grew around Mao Zedong. Political campaigns have returned, targeting pro-Western ideas, such as freedom of speech and assembly.

China’s government is once again encouraging children to report on parents and students to snitch on their teachers, Xu wrote. Once again, officials are promoted based on political views, not on competence. And, in many areas, the course of economic reforms has slowed or even stopped with numerous examples of private firms being steamrolled by state-owned enterprises.

A key source of the unease expressed in Xu’s essay has been the perilous nature of relations with the United States. Xu notes that the current trade war with America has exposed “the weakness of [China’s] national strength and its system,” mirroring American pundits who say similar things about how the trade war is affecting the United States.

Xu’s essay has resonated deeply among China’s intellectual elite and has been widely shared on Chinese social media, despite attempts by China’s censors and Chinese largest search engine, Baidu, to erase mentions of his name. But Xu is not the only one fretting about China’s future.

In the United States, experts on China’s economy who historically have been optimistic are worried as well. In a report released this summer, the Asia Society Policy Institute and the Rhodium Group noted that in 8 out of 10 areas, such as reforms of state-owned enterprises and efforts to bolster competition, China seemed to have halted or even turned back economic reforms. Another celebrated economist, Nicholas R. Lardy, expressed similar views, noting that China’s obsession with favoring state-owned firms over private ones was hampering growth.

Inside China, even mainstream publications seem uneasy about China’s direction. Last month, the People’s Daily launched a campaign designed to tamp down the very triumphalism about China’s place in the world that months before it wasted so much ink promoting.  In December 2017, the People’s Daily touted what it called “the China solution” as an alternative to the democracy and open markets of the West. Now, the party’s mouthpiece is warning against what it called “boastful and arrogant” discourse that had “twisted the national psyche.”

With vast portions of the country (Tibet and Xinjiang) under semi-martial law and a state budget that devotes more resources to internal security than it does to national defense, there seems little chance for this unease to coalesce into any challenge to the Chinese Communist Party. That said, China is entering what Chinese officials like to call “a sensitive time.” Anniversaries have always worried the Chinese Communist Party and several key ones loom on the horizon. Forty years ago this December, China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping launched the nation on its path to reform. In May 2019, it will be 100 years since China’s students rallied in Tiananmen Square and touched off a movement for the liberation of Chinese minds.

And 30 years ago next June, China’s students gathered again on the square to call for more freedom before they were suppressed in a bloody crackdown. All three of these provide an opening for China’s liberals to argue, as Xu Zhangrun did in his essay, that Xi has distorted Deng’s legacy and moved China back in time.