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Don’t assume China cannot change

Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. Protesters angered by strict anti-virus measures called for China’s powerful leader to resign, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to suppress demonstrations Sunday that represent a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Protests in China in response to the government’s harsh “Zero COVID” rules became the largest since the 1989 Tiananmen incident. They are bigger, bolder and more broadly supported than anything China has seen in the last 30 years. After making worldwide headlines, the unrest recently led to the easing of some COVID-19 policies.

While many questions remain, including whether the protests will continue to spread, whether there will further loosening of rules or whether protests will ultimately be quashed by the authorities, they make one thing crystal clear: China can change, and its seemingly relentless slide toward greater authoritarianism is not inevitable. The assumption, widely repeated by Western policymakers, CEOs and analysts, that China cannot change is misplaced. We need to rethink it — and that is the most important message we should be taking from the protestors. 

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) draconian handling of COVID-19 has fundamentally contributed to Chinese citizens reaching this desperate point.  But make no mistake, for many in China these protests are about more than just COVID-19. The core question animating protestors’ concerns is “are we confident that the future will be better than the present?” After the devastation of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution the 1960s and 70s, the Communist Party struck a deal with its citizens: Allow us to remain in power and tomorrow will be better than today. But in 2022, few in China are confident about what the future holds.

Since the beginning of the Reform and Opening Up in the late 1970s, the prospect of a brighter tomorrow in China was clear. The baseline, of course, was low. In 1975, China’s GDP per capita was less than $200 and industry and had been decimated by 25 years of politicized party rule.  But, still, Chinese citizens enjoyed unprecedented quality of life improvements across almost every metric from the late 1970s until the 2010s. GDP per capita grew by almost 6,000 percent, life expectancy went from 59 years to 77 years (equal to the U.S.). 800 million Chinese moved above the international poverty line, and maternal mortality dropped from 80 per 100,000 live births to 18 (just one more per 100,000 than the U.S.).

At an individual level, housing and education opportunities expanded and job opportunities and job diversity grew. Chinese were able to make choices for themselves and for their families that had been denied them during the during the Maoist era, such as when to marry and when to have children.  And, most importantly, while some groups in China, such as Tibetans and Uighur Muslims, still suffered under the heavy hand of Communist Party control, most majority Han Chinese could expect that their lives and their children’s lives would only improve. 

In the 2010s, the Reform and Opening Up train began to slow. GDP annual growth peaked at 10.64 percent in 2010 and has declined year-on-year since (save for 2021, when China saw growth rates rise coming out of the pandemic). The housing market, where many Chinese have concentrated their wealth, has slumped since 2019, with no signs of relief on the horizon.  At the same time, youth unemployment has soared, reaching 20 percent or 1 in 5 people in the summer of 2022.  And predictions for future growth are poor.

But it is not just economic doubt that is worrying the average Chinese. Former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy was not simply a financial play.  At its core, it promised that the party would step back from day-to-day governance, allowing bureaucrats to do their job informed by experience and expertise, not by political thought. This meant rebuilding government systems and processes, including laws, courts, local governments and administrative agencies, as well as allowing them to be run by experts not partisans. It also was predicated on a closed-off China reengaging with the world, welcoming businesses, tourists, students and even civil society collaborations by the hundreds of thousands. Recent policy shifts have undermined the professionalization of the public and private sectors that guided China over the last four decades, with academics, entertainers, professionals and businessmen facing extreme political litmus tests (for example, Alibaba’s Jack Ma). And during the COVID-19 pandemic, China has effectively closed its borders to the world. Even its own students studying abroad face significant barriers to returning home to visit family. 

For the last five years, U.S. policymakers have been debating the benefits of engagement with China, a policy that presumed that China’s integration into the global marketplace would result in economic, social and, ultimately, political liberalization.  Many concluded that this policy was naive at best — and foolish at worst.  We must accept China for what it is, not for what we wish it to be, the argument goes. 

But even if, as historian Jonathan Spence argued in his 1969 book “To Change China,” outsiders cannot change China, that does not mean that China cannot change. The last 100 years are rife with evidence that not only can China change, it can change dramatically. In fact, China’s preceding century has been defined arguably more by change than stasis, veering from an imperial monarchy, to a republic, to a socialist people’s republic, to a market-oriented autocracy. In the 1970s, the CCP demonstrated that it could make a remarkable about-face setting aside Maoism and transitioning to a socialist market state. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the prospect of both greater economic and even political liberalization were tangible, even if the reality was far less clear. But in recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has reversed course on political and legal reform and China is now showing the strains. The protestors are showing that change is once again needed, the question is who will lead it.

Amy E. Gadsden, Ph.D., is associate vice provost for Global Initiatives and executive director of Penn China Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tags China china covid policies chinese protests covid lock down covid protests COVID-19 Xi Jinping
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