Since the fall of the Qing Dynasty more than a century ago, young Chinese people have repeatedly urged their country’s leaders to learn lessons from the West. In 1919, the student-led May 4th Movement called for a departure from old Confucian methods and an acceptance of women’s rights and individualistic social values. In 1989, student protesters built a paper mache Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square and urged the Chinese Communist Party to adopt democratic political reforms
More recently, a generation of Chinese alumni from overseas universities have returned home and used virtual private networks to read overseas news, check Facebook, and stay connected with the outside world. But today many young Chinese citizens are not only angry about US foreign policy, but also express growing disdain for the most fundamental social and political ideas of the West. This is an epochal shift that will have profound implications for China’s future and US-China relations.
Chinese youth have expressed two main criticisms of the Western model. The first is that the recent spate of hate crimes against ethnic Chinese in the United States, which has received widespread attention in China, reveals the “white supremacy” at the heart of Anglo-Saxon culture: fear of ethnic Chinese and contempt for Chinese values. The second is that Western countries’ pathetic failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic proves that liberal democracy is inferior to Chinese meritocratic one-party rule. This is a strong combination.
“In their bones, [Anglo-Saxons] harbor unspeakable cultural racism, ”wrote blogger chairman Rabbit, the Harvard-educated grandson of Ren Zhongyi, a famous Chinese statesman who campaigned for political reform during the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras. “They believe that Western civilization is better and more advanced while Chinese civilization is backward.” Last month, star NBA player Jeremy Lin wrote on Facebook that another player called him “coronavirus” on the pitch. The story received little attention in the US, but it has become a trending topic on Chinese social media. “Systemic racial discrimination is everywhere in the United States,” read a headline.
In China, the terms “Western imperialism” and “white supremacy” refer to historical episodes: the Century of Humiliation or the Eight Nations Alliance that occupied Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. Young Chinese now use the term “white supremacy” to explain current events, particularly reports of attacks on ethnic Chinese overseas and the US government’s crackdown on professors and PhD students at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and elsewhere that have failed to disclose ties to China. One story says: “54 American scientists lost their jobs, most of them Asian and Chinese. … This investigation is deliberately targeting and persecuting the Chinese. “
For more than a century, many of China’s most important intellectuals have traveled abroad to study, teach, and work. Headlines like this can change that. A threatening decoupling in Sino-US relations and an end to the era in which Western education gave China prestige and career opportunities may be imminent.
Meanwhile, Western countries’ botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic has convinced many Chinese citizens that liberal democratic political institutions cannot solve major problems. Zhang Weiwei, dean of the China Research Institute at Fudan University and a prominent public intellectual, summed up the zeitgeist on television last month. First, Zhang mocked the United States for its hypocrisy in teaching China about human rights, while around 3,000 US citizens died from COVID-19 every day. “If the right not to die from a deadly virus isn’t a human rights problem, what is it?” he asked. He argued that the Chinese government completely wiped out the virus in spring 2020 and urged the American people to take to the streets to demand that their government do the same. “American life is important!” he bumped.
Zhang claimed the United States is attacking China’s model of government to deflect attention from its own shortcomings. Western societies and political institutions elevate self-interested and often incompetent leaders, he argued, and encourage citizens to act selfishly and divide themselves into antagonistic partisan camps. In contrast, the argument goes, the “China model” theorized by the pro-Beijing Canadian scholar Daniel Bell elevates the most competent people to positions of responsibility – and enables them to act decisively in the general interest. The global pandemic proves the superiority of the Chinese model, argued Zhang. Liberal democratic governments could not induce their people to make the small individual sacrifice of subjecting themselves to a strict but temporary lockdown, even if the result were a massive collective benefit. (Zhang didn’t discuss Taiwan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Australia, all multi-party democracies that dealt with the virus at least as quickly as China.)
The pandemic is also used to justify restrictions on freedom of expression. “The United States is entering an era after the truth,” said Zhang. “About half of the population do not believe in government, and a large proportion of the people do not believe in science or in relevant scientific institutions. As a result, “he explained,” everything is politicized and controversial. “Describing China’s internet censorship as positive, he pointed out that since the first outbreak in Wuhan more than a year ago, Chinese internet censors have strictly controlled public expression of the pandemic on social media. Removing” misleading or bogus Information, ”he argued, helps maintain social stability and harmony.
There are, of course, numerous rumors that Western countries censor public debate in a similar way, but without the social benefits. “When it comes to China and the COVID-19 pandemic, freedom of speech in the United States is increasingly being pushed back,” wrote a journalist in China. “Ordinary users’ voices are weak in the face of giants,” namely Amazon and Twitter.
In short, after a painful early experience in Wuhan, Beijing’s relative success in overcoming the pandemic may have convinced many young Chinese with foreign education that China’s political and social values produce better outcomes than Western ones.
Agree or disagree with Zhang’s views, but you have something to say about the direction of Chinese foreign policy and public opinion. Of course, these examples only cover a small selection of the debates on Chinese social media. And China’s internet is a tightly controlled environment: citizens who disagree cannot respond in defense of the West. However, several polls confirm that the nationalist turn in China’s political discourse reflects a real shift in attitudes, not just a dial-up of Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda. In an April 2020 poll of nearly 20,000 Chinese citizens, almost half of those surveyed said they trust their national government more. Only 3.3 percent of those surveyed said they had less confidence in executives after the epidemic. The approval ratings of Chinese leaders during the outbreak were over 90 percent.
These trends have long-term implications for Chinese domestic politics and US-China relations.
Fears of COVID-19, hate crimes and racial discrimination have already led many talented and open-minded Chinese students at overseas universities to return home instead of settling in the West. Annual growth in the number of Chinese students enrolled in the US fell to less than 1 percent, a marked low in the past decade. As a result of this, the current generation of Chinese youth may be the first since the Cultural Revolution to be more patriotic and ideologically committed than their parents. This will inevitably steer the direction of Chinese politics in a more nationalistic and culturally assertive direction. As Peter Hays Gries pointed out over a decade ago, the Chinese Communist Party can raise the temperature of nationalist sentiment if it wants, but lowering the temperature is not that easy.
Liberal democratic governments have no silver bullet to convince Chinese youth that their political values are better than autocratic ones. But they can and must do more to counter the epidemic of anti-Asian hate crime and harassment. The Stop AAPI Hate advocacy group received more than 2,800 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans in the United States last year. Countless others were never reported. Solving this problem is not just a moral imperative for an open society. It is also a foreign policy issue with long-term national security implications.
A Chinese observer, commenting on the current situation in the United States, drew a parallel with the early days of the Cold War. In the 1930s, according to the author, a Chinese student named Qian Xuesen went to the United States to study. He graduated from MIT and the California Institute of Technology and worked as an aerospace engineer in the United States. In the 1950s, Qian returned to China after being accused of communism by the McCarthy mob.
In the mid-1960s he founded China’s missile program.