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The West is watching the Chinese government’s fight against the coronavirus with respect and unease. Kristin Shi-Kupfer says we should also eye the country’s ever more unpredictable citizens. This article is part 1 of a MERICS blog series on China's corona struggle.

People wearing a face mask walks at a street in Beijing

No matter how perfectly the Chinese government manages to orchestrate things, some remain beyond its control. When Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan dropped by Wuhan in early March, local authorities seemed to have planned everything perfectly: Sun passed through a middle-class residential area whose neat lawns and peaceful residents were meant to signal success in the battle against the coronavirus. But screams disturbed the officially decreed calm: "Fake, fake, everything’s fake," the residents shouted in the face of what they saw as unacceptable political theater – and shortly before the video ended.

China’s citizens are becoming more unpredictable

Spontaneous and unscripted outcries like this suggest that many Chinese citizens have developed a reflex against the hypocrisy of their government. But they are also an expression of a society that is deeply rattled and traumatized. Xi Jinping, head of the Communist Party and the Chinese state, has brought the population into line for the project of turning China into an indomitable world power. As a result, he has robbed it of most opportunities to self-organize, try bottom-up experiments and have time for reflection. Without space for constructive dialogue, mutual respect and community interaction, China’s citizens are becoming more unpredictable – a challenge for China's leaders and perhaps also for the West.

Spontaneous public outcry of Chinese citizens is the result of a complex mix of sadness, anger, resignation and aggression. These bursts often appear to be triggered by a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the powerful, by a yearning for change in the face of nothing changing, by feeling turned into a commodity as part of China’s high-speed commercialization and fixation on “national progress”. The stinging sense of "me down here, them up there" is often the small spark that is needed to cause new outbursts to flare. Rarely coordinated, they are usually against something and rarely for anything, not being able to provide an alternative for what they resent. Their targets are various – the government, its perceived enemies, oneself. Or a mixture of many different things.

Beijing is aware of the dangers of spontaneous public outbursts

But Beijing knows how dangerous these spontaneous outbursts against “those up there" can be. In the early 2000s, angry crowds all over the country sparked violent and sometimes long clashes with security forces. Public consternation about the death of “the hero of Wuhan”, Dr. Li Wenliang, who had been among the first to warn about the novel coronavirus, recently flooded the internet. Words and symbols of protest and outrage were spread and shared widely, either because censors couldn’t keep track or because they were told to observe and identify ringleaders. Sometimes outbursts can lead to coordinated and targeted demands being published. After Dr. Li’s death, intellectuals revived demands for transparency of information and freedom of expression – such political demands have occurred frequently throughout China’s recent history and have not been completely silenced to this day.

For its part, the Chinese government feels more comfortable and even encourages a very different reaction to any feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness – nationalistic and xenophobic expressions of discontent. Many Chinese citizens are praising the superiority of their leaders’ crisis management – supposedly so efficient and well thought-out in contrast to the slow and fragmented reactions of liberal democracies. They agree with Beijing’s propaganda that the coronavirus did not originate in China (but rather in the USA or Italy) and that a second wave of coronavirus cases is largely being imported from abroad (and mainly by foreigners, not returning Chinese). This has in places led to an open hostility towards foreigners.

Xenophobia and nationalism are sometimes also met with skepticism in China

But expressions of Schadenfreude and malice about the catastrophic developments in Spain and Italy are also frightening some citizens. China’s social media is full of concern about local governments and entrepreneurs turning the crisis into a business opportunity. Some say it is unforgiveable that donations in kind made during the crisis should now be sold. In doing so, they’re revealing another form of insecurity – the shock about oneself, about perhaps being an overzealous student of a money-first-style modernity from which many Western societies also suffer from.

Moving social-media contributions address possible opportunities created by the coronavirus crisis – more time for family, for relationships – and the search for a more meaningful life. Citizen reporters are documenting conditions in hospitals and residential areas, journalists hitting investigative peaks. But this search for meaning and longing for orientation is being undercut by the Chinese leadership. Next to the familiar repertoire of repression and the new means of surveillance developed in the crisis, Beijing is offering its people renewed material stupefaction – sometimes in macabre ways. Authorities offered relatives waiting for the ashes of their deceased outside Wuhan’s crematorium cash for not crying loudly.

As long as Beijing prohibits its people from showing emotion and prevents any form of voluntary civic involvement, it must prepare for more and more uncontrolled public outcries. A nationwide surveillance-camera system and new apps cannot prevent that – only an open and trusting communication between Beijing and its citizens could. The outcries show a potential for change – be it for a return to the traditional, collective, moderate one-party system, or for its dissolution – and would make Chinese society even harder to assess and to read. Liberal democracies would do well to pay more attention to China’s many different voices and complicated sentiment.

This article was first published in German in “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” on April 4 2020.

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