One year ago, the people of China staged massive protests against the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian zero-COVID policies. The protests, collectively known as the White Paper Movement, were the first nationwide push for freedom in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. As the protests went on, I wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post arguing that four conditions must be met to have any chance of achieving meaningful change in China.
First, the Chinese people must be deeply dissatisfied with the political status quo. Second, a democratic opposition must emerge and flourish. Third, a leadership rift must occur within the CCP regime. Fourth, the international community must believe that China’s democratic opposition is viable, and be willing to provide unwavering support.
Over the past year, public dissatisfaction – the first condition – has grown deeper and broader, nurturing new possibilities for the other three conditions.
The White Paper Movement severely eroded the political and moral authority of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reverence for Xi has waned, and protests against CCP policies have become more frequent. Meanwhile, economic challenges have persisted even after the pandemic subsided, while Xi’s global ambitions have prompted the West to take steps to counter and contain China. An increasingly paranoid Xi, in an effort to consolidate his autocratic rule, has continued his xenophobic nationalism and paranoid policies, such as the nationwide “anti-spying campaign,” thus deepening distrust in the market and among domestic and foreign entrepreneurs. All of this has exacerbated China’s economic woes.
As China’s economy struggles, one thing is certain: China’s glorious era of rapid economic growth is over. For the foreseeable future, low growth, sometimes punctuated by political interference, will be the norm. This fact will have major repercussions for China.
In 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre almost completely undermined the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule. However, the CCP managed to stabilize – and even strengthen – its position by relying on three pillars: repressive rule, rapid economic development (performance-induced legitimacy), and nationalism. Of these, rapid economic development played the most important role by bolstering nationalist sentiment.
The legitimacy derived from rapid economic growth can be seen from another perspective. Amid the widespread fear and political cynicism that followed the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a tacit bargain was struck between the Chinese people, especially the elite, and the CCP regime: freedom in exchange for prosperity and security.
With the performance-induced legitimacy in jeopardy, Xi must rely more on repression and nationalism to maintain the security of his regime. In June, a draft law to “enhance patriotic education” was introduced. After China’s anti-spying campaign was launched in August, revisions were made in September to the “Public Security Administration Punishment Law,” which now criminalizes offenses, such as “hurting national feelings,” that are subject to arbitrary interpretation. These nationalist policies provide a convenient tool for the CCP’s political repression, as dissent and business activities alike can easily be labeled as espionage or “hurting the feelings” of the Chinese nation. Xi’s security policies have made everyone insecure.
Today, the tacit deal is unraveling as trading freedom for prosperity and security is no longer tenable. Many of the people of China, especially the elite who were once part of the CCP’s post-Tiananmen ruling structure, are choosing to “vote” with their feet. In 2022, over 300,000 people left China on net, and a comparable exodus is projected for this year. Chinese elites, in other words, are beginning to turn their backs on the CCP. This is a significant development, but it remains to be seen how they will gain political influence and unite with the existing social movement to form an opposition coalition (condition two in my list above).
If condition one is bolstered by a growing rift between the CCP and economic elites, condition three would be fulfilled. Two scenarios, in particular, could increase this possibility. First, economic elites’ growing weariness of Xi’s regime is adversely affecting the CCP’s interests – decades of under-the-table deals have created an intricate web of relationships between China’s economic elites and government officials from top to bottom. Second, it seems inevitable that Xi will continue to make serious policy blunders, thus generating widespread public discontent.
Finally, the fourth condition is international support. The U.S.-led democratic world should strive to advance China’s human rights and cultivate a politically independent middle class. The West must continue to support political prisoners and fight for their freedom – for example, Peng Lifa, who helped inspire the White Paper Movement. Finally, the democratic world can help by opposing Xi’s global agenda. After all, any gains that the CCP makes on the global stage will only increase the scale and scope of its authoritarianism.