[guest post by JVW]
As usual, I am the laggard here who is failing to carry his (ample) weight where blogging is concerned. That said, I did read a piece at the end of last week which I found very moving and wanted to share with you. If you have suffered through my musings in the past, you may know that I am a fan of geopolitical essays written by people who have at least some familiarity with the country upon which they opine, which I find far more elucidating than the usual pompous pronouncements from fatuous media or academic types. So I very much appreciated this first-person account of Cindy Yu at The Spectator where she serves as the host of their China podcast. This piece may be behind a paywall so I’ll quote liberally from it, but as I have mentioned earlier I have really come to enjoy reading The Spectator and think that the subscription has been well worth the price, given their outstanding coverage of world events. Here is what Ms. Yu, who was raised in Nanjing, has to say about her homeland:
I’ve always loved the Chinese national anthem. I used to think I was the loudest Communist Youth League pioneer as my class belted it out, dressed in our little red neckerchiefs, during our school’s weekly flag-raising ceremony. “The March of the Volunteers” was composed in the 1930s during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria; it starts with “Stand up, those who refuse to be slaves” and only gets more rousing. I could see, even at a young age in the early 2000s, that China wouldn’t be facing those days again — it was getting wealthier and more powerful. Standing in a Nanjing schoolyard, I was proud of China’s return to greatness.
During those years of reform, it felt like people could achieve anything they wanted. A middling English teacher became the head of a multi-billion dollar e-commerce company called Alibaba; an engineer who almost starved in childhood founded the world’s largest telecoms manufacturer, Huawei.[. . .]
There seemed to be an unspoken social contract: the Chinese Communist Party would ensure that people’s lives became materially better; in return, they would have sole and unchallengeable power. Literacy went up, as did lifespans. People started having money to buy what they wanted, rather than simply what they needed. Not everyone agreed with this arrangement, but it was easy for the majority to overlook the costs: the crackdowns on ethnic and religious minorities, the imprisoning of democracy activists, the poor left behind by urbanization. China seemed to be on track to become the world’s largest economy without the division and turbulence of other wealthy nations.
Now I see that it was never a fair contract. The Chinese people have no recourse when the CCP reneges on its side of the bargain. [. . .]
She goes on to cover the recent protests which appear to have shaken the Chinese leadership (i.e., Xi Jinping), and traces the arc from Tiananmen Square to Hong Kong to the draconian COVID lockdowns imposed upon the Chinese people. She recognizes — indeed, acknowledges — that her own family like so many other citizens of China accepted all of this in return for the ability to move into the middle and upper classes, and now realizes that it was a deal with the devil all along:
The hand of the state now reaches into every part of people’s lives — the Communist Party dictates where they can go and who they can see. Add to that the Covid shocks to the Chinese economy, record youth unemployment and a teetering property market, and you don’t have to be a pro-democracy activist to see that, for too many people, the CCP is not meeting its side of the deal.
And what would a youth-led protest be without a bit of clever trolling?
In response to accusations that foreign forces were stirring up discontent, one Beijing student shot back: “Do you mean Marx and Engels?” Another protester led a trio of alpacas through Shanghai; the animal has become a protest meme thanks to its supposed resemblance to the mythical grass mud horse, the name for which in Chinese sounds a little like a sexual act involving one’s mother.
As I was scrolling through social media at the weekend, one video threw me. It showed a gathering of students on a Nanjing campus singing the national anthem: “Stand up, stand up, stand up!” I wept. When I was a child, the national anthem made me proud. Now it makes me grieve.
Do read it all if you can, and realize with an unpleasant feeling that there are plenty of people in this country who look towards China as a successful case study in organizing society and would love to bring plenty of unappealing aspects of it here.