Covid, Russia and economy put the “China model” to the test

A year ago, when many countries were still reeling from Covid-19, China appeared to be one of the few places thriving from the pandemic. It was also the only major economy to report growth in 2020. Global investors were bullish on Chinese stocks even as Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on the private sector turned more into a political campaign.

This has led some people in China to argue that its authoritarian one-party rule presents a compelling alternative to traditional liberal democracy. The United States is in political and economic decline, they said, and the world is “moving to China.” Many Chinese cheered the story online.

A year later, the tone in China is more one of fear, anger and despair. Hundreds of millions of people have struggled there under lockdowns for the past month as coronavirus outbreaks spread across the country. Foreign investors are call it quits Chinese stocks on geopolitical, regulatory and pandemic uncertainties. And the government’s support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is waging war in Ukraine, has risked world criticism and possible sanctions.

All of this is raising increasingly concerned 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 served a third five-year term at the Communist Party Congress later this year aspires year.

On social media, more and more citizens are accusing the Communist Party of breaking its social contract with the people. They had tolerated, and sometimes praised, one-party rule in exchange for economic growth and social stability. But its tough lockdown measures, which are straining entire cities, and its regulatory crackdown are costing many of them jobs and income, and making their futures look much more uncertain and bleak than they did a few years ago.

After an official newspaper, Guangming Daily, published an op-ed about the government’s persistence in pursuing its “zero Covid” policy, which has led to harsh and unpredictable lockdowns, users on the social media platform Weibo almost 10,000 comments posted, with the vast majority urging the government to end the strategy. “Please read these comments. Please look at the lives of ordinary people,” wrote a user named Diqiuren1990. All comments disappeared the next day after commenting was disabled.

After the Chinese ambassador to the United States wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post about China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of social media users rushed to post comments on WeChat about a Chinese translation. The vast majority of these posts criticized China’s pro-Russia position under the guise of neutrality. “There is no such thing as neutrality in the struggle between justice and evil,” one comment said. “Spidering between two boats only causes you to fall in the water.” All of these comments were also censored.

And a viral video, captioned “The Fall of China’s Glory and Dream,” lamented the disastrous impact of the government’s crackdown on the private sector. It appealed to many of the country’s top investors, scholars and entrepreneurs, including a co-founder of Tencent, China’s largest internet company, who had left the company. The video has been deleted.

In private, some academics and businesspeople are discussing growing concerns about Mr. Xi’s focus on competing with the United States and proving the viability of the Chinese political model — a focus that some concerns have become obsessions with.

Competition between countries, Mr Xi said, is ultimately competition between political systems. Dealing with the pandemic “made it clear which leadership and which political system in the country is superior,” he told top cadres in January 2021. “Time and momentum are on our side.”

Chinese citizens must be extremely careful when criticizing Mr Xi, some of whom have been sentenced to up to 18 years in prison. Some therefore resort to citing former top leaders to express their frustration that Mr. Xi has strayed from the tried and tested path of reform and opening-up that has brought decades of prosperity to the country.

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

They shared pictures of former President Jiang Zemin sharing a dance with Bernadette Chirac, wife of former French President Jacques Chirac, in 1999. Those were the days when China was more popular in the world.

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

They even used the Soviet Union as an example to demonstrate the danger of dictatorship. A modern nation “should have the system to prevent one person from taking the whole nation over the abyss,” according to an article published on WeChat, the social media platform.

The public’s pent-up anger is unlikely to be enough to influence Beijing’s decision-making or to threaten the rule of the Communist Party, which is used to keeping people in line through indoctrination and intimidation. But it marks a departure from the heavy silence that has prevailed under Mr Xi’s rule.

Two years ago, China celebrated the merits of its top-down approach to government, pointing to its success in building a new hospital in Wuhan in just 10 days and halting the spread of the coronavirus in three months. Today, many people consider the makeshift quarantine centers as one symbol by Beijing’s stubborn insistence on a costly corona policy, which seems mainly to serve the purpose of proving the superiority of its system.

The country’s relentless anti-pandemic measures have been dubbed “white terror,” a nod to the vast army of neighborhood workers wearing white hazmat suits. People have shared videos and photos of protests where protesters chanted “We have to work!” and “We have to eat!”

Some commentators said Beijing squandered its early success in fighting the pandemic because it believed its political will alone would be enough to defeat the virus. They questioned why the government hasn’t spent the vast resources it has devoted to mass testing and quarantines on a vaccination campaign, particularly among the elderly. They questioned whether Beijing was irresponsible in not approving the more potent Western vaccines out of national pride.

Many blamed the government for failing to see the huge sacrifices businesses and individuals had to make, or complained that people were struggling to make ends meet and falling behind on mortgages and other personal loans. They were furious that some people had died of heart attacks, asthma, cancer and other diseases because hospitals had turned them away under Covid confinement guidelines.

“As long as you don’t die of Covid, you can die of any cause,” reads a viral online joke.

Beijing remains imperturbable in the face of public resentment.

“In the past two years, China has fully demonstrated the significant advantage of its political system and strong national capacity to contain the pandemic,” state-run People’s Daily said in an op-ed on Monday. The zero-Covid policy is a “line of defense that a nation of 1.4 billion people must hold,” it said.

Beijing also appeared to have Russia’s support hot on its heels, releasing a series of official comments blaming US hegemony for the war in Ukraine. On Tuesday, an op-ed in People’s Daily called the United States “the initiator” of the war, which it described as a “crisis.” On Wednesday, another comment on the same page said the United States was “putting fuel on the fire” by providing military aid to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia.

That’s worrying for many people, who fear Beijing’s pro-Moscow stance could accelerate China’s decoupling from the West or even lead to Russia-like sanctions that would have huge repercussions on technology, trade and capital markets.

“Is it good or bad for China to be put on the same side of the Iron Curtain as Russia?” nationalist writer Wang Xiaodong asked his followers on Weibo. His conclusion: China should try everything to avoid the scenario, because it would have to pay an extremely high price.

The only policy area where Beijing has softened a bit has been its regulatory crackdown on the private sector. After a sharp sell-off in Chinese stocks in mid-March, China’s economic czar Liu He urged government authorities to introduce market-friendly measures and exercise caution in introducing measures that could harm markets.

But China’s political campaign-style regulatory crackdown has done its damage. The mass job cuts, once rare in China, are taking place in technology, real estate, education and online games, some of the industries hardest hit by the raids. Posts about unemployment are widely shared as a somber mood grips the educated middle class.

“At this historical turning point, we look back to the Golden Age,” says an online post about China’s four decades of economic transformation and dreams of individual prosperity. “We all thought it was our future,” it said. “It turned out to be an illusory dream.” Covid, Russia and economy put the “China model” to the test

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