Frustrated by mounting uncertainties and lack of economic opportunities in Jinping’s kingdom, youth have come up with a new phrase to encapsulate their outlook on life: ‘let it rot’.
London: When Xi Jinping engineered China’s constitution in 2018, scrapping the two-term limit for anyone to hold the post of State President and thus allowing him to stand again, he probably didn’t imagine the mountain of problems he would be facing in an election year.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” was the snowclone which became the de facto slogan for Clinton’s successful election campaign in 1992, unseating incumbent President George H W Bush. The economy normally plays a huge part in elections in the free world, but in autocratic China, unless there is a massive economic slump, Xi will be under no threat when the 2,300 delegates meet in Beijing this autumn. In the mind of Xi Jinping, this 20th Congress should be the exact opposite of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the one that in 1956 marked the beginning of the de-Stalinisation process and therefore, according to him, the beginning of the end of the USSR. The year 2022 will not be the start of the de-Jinpingisation process. Nevertheless, the state of the economy is currently a big worry.
Speaking to more than 100,000 representatives from around the country in a teleconference last week, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, gave an unusually stark warning about China’s economy, which he said ‘faces grim challenges’. Citing unforeseen factors such as continued outbreaks of coronavirus and the war in Ukraine, Li said his chief goal was to ensure that the economy expands in the second quarter. Even if Li’s optimistic estimate of 5.5 percent growth for this year turns out to be correct, and many believe it will be far less, it will be the first time in 46 years that the United States will grow faster than China.
Li’s comments, delivered in a meeting unusual for its scale and format, underscored the difficulty China faces as it tries to balance economic growth, which has long underpinned the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s popular support, with the political goals of Xi Jinping. Unstated, however, was the simple fact that Xi is spearheading some of the main policies blamed for curtailing growth, from the strict zero-Covid policy to the crackdown on the technology industry and other private sectors to exert more party control over the economy. Li, who is No 2 in the country, is traditionally charged with leading the economy, but has been sidelined for much of his tenure. In the past few months, however, he has stepped into the spotlight to urge changes that would bring the economy back on track, changes that are not in accord with Xi.
Xi Jinping’s strict measures to contain Covid, which are having a devastatingly negative effect on China’s economy, are puzzling to Western observers. Omicron, although remaining extremely infectious, has become so mild in countries that have achieved widespread vaccination and natural infection rates, that it may now be even less deadly than flu. Officially, the Chinese government has not budged from Xi’s zero-Covid position, which has been enforced for 28 months, but there have been some minuscule signs that it may be softening its stance on how to deal with the virus. Li Keqiang said recently that China would continue to make its Covid response more “scientific and targeted,” striking a balance between disease control and enabling people to live normal lives. Xi Jinping, however, insisted at a recent politburo meeting that China would stick with its “dynamic zero-Covid” policy, saying that “victory comes from perseverance”. Since the policy is so identified with Xi, any criticism of it is viewed as sabotage, meaning that the economy will remain in the doldrums for the foreseeable future, thwarting Li’s urging to bring it back on track.
Another of Xi Jinping’s problems is that for the first time since the great famine struck 60 years ago, China’s population will shrink this year, after four extraordinary decades in which the population swelled from 660 million to 1.4 billion. According to the figures from the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 in 2021, a record low increase of just 480,000, and a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so, common a decade ago. While reluctance to have children in the face of the strict Covid measures might have contributed to the slowdown in births, it has been coming for years. China’s fertility rate was 2.6 in the late 1980s, well above the 2.1 births per woman needed to replace deaths. It had been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994 and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 since 2021. By way of comparison, in Australia and the US, fertility rates are 1.6, and in Japan, it is 1.3. This has happened despite Beijing abandoning its disastrous one-child policy in 2016, and hurriedly introducing a three-child policy, backed by tax and other incentives, last year.
An additional problem is that since 1980 many couples opted for a boy, lifting the sex at birth ratio from 106 boys to 100 girls, to 120, and in some provinces to an astonishing 130. The Shanghai Academy of Social Science predicts an annual average decline of 1.1% in population after 2021, pushing China’s population down to 587 million at the end of the century, a sharp decline that will have a profound impact on China’s economy. Higher labour costs, driven by a rapidly shrinking labour force, are set to push low-margin, labor-intensive manufacturing out of China to labour-abundant countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.
Yet another problem for Xi, which may not even be currently on his radar, is the frustration of modern youth in China to growing uncertainties and lack of economic opportunities. Early last month, Xi encouraged the country’s youth to set ‘high ideals’ and integrate their personal goals into the ‘big picture’ of the Chinese nation and people. “China’s hope lies in its youth,” he said in an important speech. But on the internet in China, some young people say that their ‘ideals’ cannot be achieved and many of them have given up trying, resorting to a new buzzword – bai lan (摆烂) meaning leave him rot – to capture their attitude to life. By using bai lan, they are sending a message that they are voluntarily withdrawing from the pursuit of certain goals because they are simply too difficult to achieve. On Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China, bai lan–related topics have generated hundreds of millions of views and discussions since March. Netizens have also created different variations of the bai lan attitude. Together with the earlier tang ping (躺平) meaning to reject gruelling competition for a low-desire life, these have grown in popularity as stiff competition and high social expectations have prompted many young Chinese to drop out of hard work.
But bai lan has a more disturbing layer in the way it is used by young people in China to actively embrace a deteriorating situation, rather than trying to reverse it. Chinese experts say it is close to other Chinese expressions, such as ‘breaking a cracked pot’ (破罐破摔) and ‘dead pigs are not afraid of boiling water’ (死猪不怕开水烫). Social scientists liken these expressions to the ‘slacker’ generation in the US in the 1990s, rejecting the ultra-competitive of the country’s society then and now.
In today’s China, this attitude among young people is further exacerbated by diminishing economic opportunities. In the past year, hundreds of millions of Chinese have been confined to their homes by Xi’s persistent zero-Covid policy, during which the world’s second-biggest economy has struggled to boost growth. More than 18 percent of young Chinese aged 16 to 24 were out of work in April, the highest since official records began. This sense of hopelessness among the young is booming in China due to Xi Jinping’s tyrannical and ill-thought-out decisions. Shrinking economic opportunities and the lack of social mobility have made the young worried about the future, and they are so fed up with Beijing’s policies and machinery that they have even stopped bothering about the reaction of the authorities. After all, if ‘the pot is cracked’ why bother about breaking it, or if you are a ‘dead pig’, why be concerned about boiling water? Just bai lan!
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.