Are China’s COVID protests the start of a new era for civic engagement?
A decade ago the predominant sentiment among China experts in the U.S. was quite optimistic. Everywhere there were signs of more pluralism — particularly in the form of a Chinese version of crusading journalism and of leaders such as Jiang Zemin, who famously wore a cowboy hat and a Revolutionary War tri-cornered hat during trips to the U.S. When Chinese intellectuals were asked by Americans about democracy in China, their reaction was generally, “give us time — we want a system like America’s, but can introduce it only gradually.” The common view among China experts was that as China grew richer, it would grow more democratic.
Even before the collapse in U.S.-China relations the last few years — and presaging the collapse — the China experts did a mea culpa. China was growing richer, but it wasn’t growing more democratic. Indeed, China was increasingly dominated by the hardline stance of Xi Jinping, reducing the room for domestic dissent. Chinese policy also grew increasingly harsh towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. And the Chinese internet became increasingly dominated by strident young nationalist voices, often called (in China) “little pinks,” attacking not only the U.S. but also more moderate voices inside the country.
But there have been some outbreaks in the last weeks of willingness to publicly criticize the government. The first fascinating development is the online discontent, and even some public demonstrations, against harsh and clunky government policies in Shanghai to enforce a COVID lockdown. The policies have involved the forced relocation of some people from their apartments into COVID isolation centers and some separation of parents and children. There is also widespread anger over the unavailability of food to buy while people are stuck at home. A Shanghai student friend tells me these criticisms have popped up everywhere on the Chinese internet, and the New York Times has noted the same thing, though many of the comments have been deleted. We are seeing a willingness to participate in public life and criticize the government.
A second thing involves not participation against the government but the government actually encouraging somewhat independent participation itself. I recently ran across an article in the Chinese daily Global Times called “CPC opens 1st online public opinion on national congress.” As part of the runup to the 20th party congress, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is inviting the public to enter online comments about issues they would like to see discussed, “marking the first time in the CPC’s history that work related to national congress has included publicly solicited opinions. …These opinions expressed online will be collected, analyzed and then provided as a reference to the drafting of the report of the congress, and some of the common problems raised by netizens will be dealt with immediately or assigned to responsible departments for further research.”
In my view, we should neither shout about this online forum from the treetops nor just make fun (or worse) of what I think, in fairness, we should see as an advance in Chinese governance. It is better this is happening now — in the past, it didn’t.
I don’t want to read too much into either of these events. At best they represent tiny buds of an independent civil society. But could it be the case, as the optimists thought a decade ago, that as China grows richer, a larger number of people will indeed value independent thought and participation for themselves? This has certainly been the pattern over many times and places around the world.
What outsiders who hope for a more pluralistic China should watch very closely is whether people become increasingly willing to take on the little pinks, question extreme nationalism and seek to participate in government with more independence, and, even if cautiously, to challenge it. I am not holding my breath, nor am I saying this can’t happen.
China’s citizens may all seem eager to follow the party’s lead — until they aren’t.
Steve Kelman is the Weatherhead professor of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School and editor of the International Public Management Journal.
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