THE protests that broke out in multiple cities across China last weekend were shocking for many reasons. They were overtly political, with some demonstrators even calling for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down.
They were national, extending from Shanghai and Beijing to the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, where the deaths of 10 people trapped in an apartment fire sparked anger over the draconian restrictions imposed to suppress Covid-19. And they were populated mostly by twenty-something Chinese, the beneficiaries of years of economic growth.
The makeup of the protests was surprising for another reason as well.
Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, well after the crackdown on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Gen Z Chinese have only ever known a system where the state heavily controls all information. Censors restrict any news that conflicts with the Communist Party’s preferred messaging, while state propaganda consistently touts the Party’s successes and political goals.
Between 2004 and 2010, the government also introduced a new high school politics curriculum explicitly meant to shape students’ ideology. Researchers have found it very effective.
Compared to older cohorts, children subject to the new teachings are more likely to hold beliefs about society and politics that align with the government’s views. They are more likely to express trust in the authorities, believe in the values of “socialist democracy” and criticise “unconstrained democracy”.
Young Chinese know almost nothing about the events of 1989 or the bloody massacre that ended the Tiananmen protests. The history of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 — a full decade of violent civil conflict launched by Mao Zedong and his followers — is short and sanitised.
There is no mention of the beatings and killings that the government inflicted on civilians during the rural land reforms and anti-Rightist movements of the 1950s, or the estimated 22 million to 45 million peasants who died because the government took away their food during the Great Famine from 1959 to 1961.
Outside of schools, people can discuss these issues privately. But any mention on social media is immediately deleted.
Chinese youth have also grown up imbibing media that celebrates the Party as a resolute defender of their interests. Cinemas are dominated by patriotic films showcasing heroic People’s Liberation Army soldiers helping civilians in a multitude of contexts, especially during the Japanese invasion of China in World War II. All Chinese children are taught to emulate Lei Feng, a soldier held up as an icon of the Party’s selfless revolutionary spirit.
Until last weekend, these efforts appeared to have successfully bred a generation of obedient youths. The young have been active participants in recent anti-Japanese protests and loud backers of using force to block Taiwanese independence.
Xi hailed their loyalty last spring on the anniversary of the 1919 student-led May Fourth Movement, launched to protest concessions in the Treaty of Versailles surrendering large parts of China to Japan. In a speech touting the movement’s “patriotic” spirit, Xi asked young Chinese to “unswervingly obey the Party, follow its direction, and strive to grow into heirs…worthy of the important task of national rejuvenation”.
The Covid protests showed that the full effects of two decades of propaganda and censorship are much more complex. The relative innocence of young Chinese insulates them from fear of extreme reprisals.
Having little appreciation for just how violent the Party can be, some may underestimate the risks of speaking out. They know that they may be arrested briefly, or perhaps they or their family members might lose their jobs. But the type of violence demonstrated by the Party in the past is a foreign and abstract notion.
Similarly, the sincerity of their belief in Party ideology may actually encourage some young Chinese to protest. Many are truly convinced that the Party exists to “serve the people”, a slogan promoted by Chairman Mao that’s still popular in schools. So, the young feel particularly betrayed by the way officials have implemented Xi’s Covid Zero policies — locking up families in their homes without food, blocking the ill from reaching hospitals, perhaps even leaving people to die in fires such as the one in Urumqi.
These young Chinese have also been raised on stories about the virtues of people’s revolution,
where figures such as Mao took up arms against a malign government on behalf of ordinary citizens. In that light, raising their voices against a corrupt government is a patriotic course of action.
Of course, it’s too early to say how widespread such sentiments may be or whether they will persist if the government clamps down hard. The fact remains that no other large country in history has been as successful as China in controlling information and indoctrinating youth.
Still, the protests show that the impact of those efforts on China’s long-run political evolution isn’t clear-cut. Those young Chinese most persuaded by official ideology — who firmly believe the regime’s role is to serve the Chinese people — may turn out to be the loudest voices demanding change. — Bloomberg
Nancy Qian is the James J O’Connor Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Her research focuses on the Chinese economy and the economic and institutional development of non-democracies.
- This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition