China lost its mojo during the Covid-19 lockdowns; Can its leadership get it back?
By Austin Williams
For a country that prides itself on 5,000 years of unbroken history, it is remarkable how often China has reinvented itself. Since Mao established the People’s Republic in 1949, there has been war, famine, isolation, brutality, communism and state capitalism. Within living memory, the country has gone from peasantry to urbanity, and moved from bicycles to luxury cars in little more than a generation.
These social, political and economic shocks might have traumatised a lesser nation, but China has managed to maintain relative stability. Indeed, the Communist Party has ruled over the country for three-quarters of a century — a product not merely of its authoritarianism but also, as Kerry Brown has argued, its ability to provide ordinary Chinese with a unifying national narrative around “which the Communist Party relates to their daily lives”.
When Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, this unifying story became known as “The Chinese Dream”, a slogan that was plastered over billboards and hoardings across the country. Through the Chinese Dream rhetoric, Xi confirmed that the country would become “moderately prosperous”, employment opportunities would improve, and individuals would thrive. Xi was laying the foundations, as he put it, for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
The Chinese Dream was symbolised by social engagement, as opposed to the American Dream, which reflected Western individualism. To demonstrate the seriousness with which he took this notion of communal solidarity, Xi directed the authorities to clamp down on corruption and personal aggrandisement within the ranks of the CCP. For him and the country, social improvement was to be a collective effort, and all would reap the benefits. These included the promise that GDP per person would double within Xi’s original term of office, that citizens would have access to massively improved welfare provisions, and that China would start to develop a military “capable of fighting and winning wars”.
It was all going so well — until Covid-19 hit. Even when China was initially building a consensus for lockdown, the restrictions were sold as a selfless, patriotic duty. While the Covid-related fatality statistics remained low — perhaps implausibly low — people bought the narrative of a paternalistic party protecting its people. But over the last few years, China’s lockdowns have done untold damage to people’s families, their businesses, and their health. As time dragged on and Chinese citizens gradually realised that the government had no Plan B, they slowly began to withdraw their loyalty.
Until recently, demonstrations of frustration with the state and its armed goons have been curiously middle-class affairs, like the tang ping (lying flat) movement of students who refused to get out of bed. That was a form of passive resistance, and therefore fundamentally unthreatening. The real attack on Chinese authority came when striking workers broke out of the Foxconn plant, and then unemployed youth united with ordinary people and began tearing down Covid barriers and demanding freedom.
During the course of the demonstrations in November, many shouted slogans insisting that Xi Jinping step down, called for an end to CCP rule, and demanded greater civil rights — a direct challenge to the Communist Party. China has responded by becoming the only country to have overturned Covid policy in response to popular anger, which is ironic given the caricature of Chinese people as passive subjects of their rulers.
The problem now facing the CCP is how to rebuild its popular legitimacy — and rewrite its national narrative — as nearly three years of Covid policy end in disastrous failure. What kind of narrative will Xi turn to in order to explain all this away?
For a hint, we can look at the “For a Life of Contentment” report, published last week by the state media’s think tank, New China Research. It sets out a strategy to recapture “harmonious” public order by outlining China’s place in the world. The document has been a long time in production, but its release has clearly been rushed out after the shock of the anti-Party disturbances. It tells a new narrative — one that is more strident, authoritative, and decisive than the Chinese Dream. And, in a bold move for China, it puts human rights centre stage.
China has long held pretensions of challenging America’s hegemonic role in world affairs. The party’s concept of Chinese rejuvenation — dubbed the “New Era” — was always premised on developing sufficiently to rival America. In 2017, for example, China was insisting that it was prepared to “take centre stage in the world”. Five years later, Beijing is sounding a more defensive, pessimistic note. It says: “the Cold War mentality as well as the hegemonic practices of putting one’s own country’s interests above the interests of others and even the international community at large, and pointing fingers at other countries are not welcome.”
This is not to say that China no longer has global pretensions — only that it is a little more circumspect. It seems that the street protests have rocked the confidence of the ruling party, and Xi needs a new narrative. Faced with widespread popular anger, for instance, the idea that the Chinese state “cares for its people” is clearly not going to work as it has over the last seven decades. Xi is going to have to earn some trust.
And so to “human rights”. China’s conception of human rights is a pragmatic (and self-serving) one. The CCP clearly believes that it can improve its image at home by advancing the lot of Chinese people; when in doubt, the party has long fallen back on giving people more money. It claims that happiness is the ultimate basis for human rights and thus, by providing material benefits to the population (better infrastructure, jobs, pay and conditions), the regime is also promoting human rights. Ironically, China appears to be tapping into the “happiness agenda” beloved of Western environmentalists by turning the “abstract concept of human rights into a set of tangible rights”.
Of course, the CCP is banking on the fact that the West still relies on it. If the party can reinvigorate the Chinese economy and hold onto the reins of power, it will be a lifeline for ailing Western economies. If China can say that their minorities are exploited but happy, that their peasants are over-worked but with cash in hand, that the Uyghurs are denied rights but have decent pay and conditions, will Western leaders really condemn it? Tapping into Western relativism, China says: “There is no fixed model of human rights protection in the world. Different countries have different national conditions, histories, cultures, social systems and economic and social development levels. A proper path of human rights development should be explored to suit national conditions and the needs of the people.”
China, then, appears to be regrouping, and a weakened West is giving it the time and space that it needs. Beijing says that it wants to bring “novel ideas, measures and practices in terms of how to respect and protect human rights (as) a refreshing addition to the global human rights cause and to the diversity of civilisations”, as well as offering “inspiration for the rest of the world, especially for developing countries”. In other words, Beijing might be in a weaker-than-normal position, but it is still trying to export its social and political model overseas. It knows it cannot afford to be completely defensive. Whether Xi can get away with this in the fragmented international community is one thing — but as the past month has shown, whether the Chinese Communist Party can convince people at home is quite another story altogether.
Austin Williams is the author of “China’s Urban Revolution” and director of the Future Cities Project. He is course leader at Kingston School of Art.