China Faces Rising Social Discontent

Economic discontent is fuellng ‘febrile political dynamics’ in China, and the difficulty people continue to face is ramping up the risk of social unrest, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) economic outlook. The simultaneity and spontaneity of the protests erupting throughout China indicate deep discontent among the Chinese people over much more than just the regime’s draconian and longstanding COVID mandates. Regular Chinese people are demanding an end to not merely the COVID mandates that have weakened China’s prosperity and cost innumerable lives but Xi Jinping’s tenure and even the end of Communist party rule. Demonstrators inside and outside China protested against the Chinese government’s COVID-19 abuses, economic hardships, censorship, and President Xi’s expanded power. In October in Beijing, a man draped two banners over a bridge, calling for the end of Xi’s rule. In November, hundreds of residents in Guangzhou took to the street and tore down barriers in defiance of abusive lockdown orders. A fire at an apartment building under lockdown in Xinjiang, where at least ten people died, triggered the protests in Shanghai, Beijing, and many other cities that began in November.

In the latest outburst of public discontent since nationwide protests against COVID curbs gripped the country late last year, thousands of elderly people recently staged a rally in the rain in central China to protest against significant medical benefits cuts. Video clips on social media show a large crowd of elderly protesters in raincoats and holding umbrellas gathering outside the Wuhan city government by the Yangtze River on February 8 while police officers form a line to stop them from approaching the gates. Most protesters were retired workers at the Wuhan Iron and Steel plant. Still, there were also people from other state-owned enterprises and disgruntled residents whose homes had been forcibly demolished. Residents said the cut had come at a time of soaring healthcare costs that many retirees could not afford.

The new Chinese economy has been slow to develop and no longer satisfies aspirations of upward mobility. Universities are producing ever more graduates, but the jobs market is saturated. Meanwhile, the old economy seems to be reaching its limits: both Chinese and foreign manufacturers are offshoring their factories, and the construction sector, which once led demand, is facing an oversupply crisis. Many potential middle-class Chinese are unemployed or in low-paid jobs with marketing platforms or as delivery drivers. The dream of an almost entirely middle-class society, reflected in the official watchwords’ small prosperity’ and ‘common prosperity,’ has run up against China’s economic problems, the
contradictions within its society, and the emergence of alternative social visions. These challenges, which appeared in the early 2000s, have been accentuated by the pandemic.

The class system is becoming more rigid, as new arrivals in the cities have trouble joining the middle class, and those already part of it are not making any progress. Incomes are no longer growing, the cost of living is rising, and property prices have risen substantially since the late 1990s, forcing young people to take on debt or their parents to sell an apartment to help their child buy their first home. The cost of education (including extra tuition, though it’s officially banned) is going up, as is the cost of moving to an area with good schools, and all this is driving up the price of new developments. Healthcare is getting more expensive: collective medical insurance systems cover a dwindling proportion of costs, and private insurance is becoming essential.

The recent uprising may not reflect widespread unrest, but it has revealed the frustration of an urban, educated generation resentful of three years of pandemic containment measures that have curtailed their ability to live, work, socialize, and travel freely. It is a generation of young people who see little future in an introverted country with a dimming economy. The headlines on China’s economic slowdown do not always illustrate the human impact which the country’s youth has disproportionally borne. China’s youth unemployment rate — those in urban areas looking for employment between ages 16– 25 — climbed to around 20%. This was against the overall unemployment rate of about 5- 6 percent. Rising youth unemployment may exacerbate discontentment. High levels of youth unemployment and underemployment, combined with disaffection with their jobs, are a recipe for despair and disaffection. Without addressing these concerns in the coming years, China will see a generation of lost youth who may look for disruptive ways to voice their despair.

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