Debates beyond the party line
China Spektrum strengthens our knowledge about China by providing insights into domestic Chinese debates. Despite increasing censorship and efforts by the Communist Party to coopt discourse, Chinese intellectuals, scientists, and entrepreneurs hold diverse perspectives with regards to current challenges and China’s future development. These debates provide crucial access to a better understanding of China and its positioning on global issues.
The results of our research in the China Spektrum framework are published in German on this website. This introduction aims at informing our English-speaking readers about its purpose and present a few insights into our analyses. If you want to learn more, please get in touch with the project leads Katja Drinhausen and Kristin Shi-Kupfer.
China Spektrum analyzes relevant debates and positions among influential Chinese intellectuals and experts, but also topics that concern the wider public, typically deemed by the state to be controversial, are being discussed by Chinese citizens. The aim of the project is to display the spectrum of opinions that still exists, and to explain how these positions relate to official party-state positions. The research focuses on three themes:
- China’s visions for the future
- China’s digital transformation
- China’s role in the world
China Spektrum uses academic methodologies of text and data analyses to scrutinize debates and positions and provides findings in short and easy-to-read formats. It offers valuable insights into how current issues are discussed and framed in China, allowing policymakers and practitioners to integrate the findings into interactions with China.
China Spektrum is a joint project of the China institute of the University of Trier (CIUT) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).
The project is supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
Unsettled but unsilenced: Dissenting voices in Chinese society will continue to make themselves heard
Compiled in June 2023
“If I have time, I will also get online to see what everybody is concerned about,” said China’s new prime minister Li Qiang at his first press conference on March 12, the closing day of the annual National People’s Congress (NPC). Li’s comment didn’t spark many replies from netizens – or such comments weren’t allowed or not displayed. Those which have been displayed e.g., via Sohu News, are full of praise, but could be also understood as an appeal to Li to follow through on his intention.
Li might indeed be well advised to follow his own comment in paying close attention to citizens’ concerns. After a tumultuous 2022, trust in the party and government of China’s citizens has been shaken.
The subjects dominating social discussions in 2022 have been manifold, clear themes and motivations can be identified which connect them. Fear and insecurity led to frustration, anger and a search for ways out; perceived injustice by party-state organs also triggered resistance. The nationwide protests at the end of November 2022 were surprising in their extent but not as a phenomenon per se. Resentment over the effects of the strict pandemic policies had built up in different regions and segments of the population throughout last year.
Protests and displays of public discontent continued into 2023, such as protests against non-transparent health care cuts to pensioners in February or discontent towards dubious explanations given to citizens of how their government deals with them under the banner of upholding stability and security. “Protecting the lives and safety of the people must be guaranteed at any cost,” party and state leader Xi Jinping emphasized on October 15, 2022. This proclaimed security has been in fact linked to a high price: under the pretext of disease control, the government massively limited and continuously monitored the everyday lives of Chinese citizens.
China’s one-party state has attempted to justify the increasing cost of so-called “system stability” and shifted away blame for failures within its governance. In the spring of 2022, subnational agencies in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu initially framed the incident of the “Xuzhou chained woman,” a woman who had been kidnapped, sold to her “husband” and kept chained at home, as merely an anomaly – the unfortunate fate of a mentally ill person. Even after a national outcry and sustained attempts by Chinese citizens to point to structural dimensions of this issue, authorities have been reluctant to admit to systemic insufficiencies to protect the fundamental rights of women.
Similarly, party-state media blamed the lack of discipline of Shanghai residents and not the systemic failure of policymakers as reason for the sudden lockdown of Shanghai and resulting food shortages in China’s wealthiest city. In the same vein, CCP media outlets have blamed rising economic inequality on so-called “crocodile capitalists.” Only when China’s wealthy private entrepreneurs share their profits with the people, would China be able to achieve a common and justly shared prosperity.
However, such official party lines are becoming increasingly disassociated from people’s everyday reality. Economic downturn, effects of the pandemic, and new restrictions for IT companies have led to 20 percent youth unemployment, among other things. This in turn evoked additional insecurity about future prospects, primarily among young people. Amid enthusiasm about a new “working-style” of the new prime minister Li Qiang, netizens have been not very enthusiastic or active to comment on his “employment-first” policy plans.
The feeling of being “locked up” or “stuck” has also been apparent in China’s citizens’ views on foreign policy and digital technology as well. Chinese social media users still display a large degree of nationalistic sentiments when it comes to core interests of the country, e.g., during the visit of the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August. However, netizens have also reacted strongly against official and expert statements signaling a more isolationist, “self-reliance” policy, worrying that, for example, in the semiconductor industry, this will lead not only to a decline in their personal lifestyle, but also hamper China’s overall development.
Even though China’s government has out of necessity given up its policy of zero tolerance toward Covid, their zero tolerance toward unwelcome criticism remains. In his New Year’s speech, Xi Jinping said: “China is so large. Different people have different wishes. It is normal for people to have different points of view on one and the same matter. We must reach a consensus through communication and agreement.”
However, the CCP will continue to define the line of what can be said and how to enforce an agreement by silencing voices which try to represent citizens’ views which diverge from the official party-state line. The harsh sentences against two outspoken lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, who were sentenced with 14 and 12 years of imprisonment for the “subversion of state power” in April, point into this direction. Also, the newly amended counter-espionage law, effective from July 1 onwards, widens the previous illegal handling of state secrets to any “documents, data, materials or items related to national security.” In practice, Chinese authorities could use the expanded legislation both against foreigners, like businessmen or researchers, as well as domestics Chinese critics.
The slowly recovering economy has removed some impacts on individual livelihood, but the Chinese leadership has yet to find sustainable solutions to systemic challenges such as unemployment, weak social security, or insecurity of proper job prospects in the heavily regulated and pressured private IT sector.
The party is keenly aware of social friction and longer-lasting challenges to livelihoods. In spring this year, the CCP unrolled a new institutional reform that creates another top-level party committee, the Societal Work Commission. This organ will focus on the development of small and medium enterprises in tying them into party priorities – i.e., stabilizing the labor market. It also upgrades work and top-level attention on petitioning, often the last resorts of citizens when their rights have been disregarded.
Will those new mechanisms be effective and/or the continuing repressions so intimidating that China’s leadership, at least from its point of view, be able to preserve the important balance between stability and control? Or will China’s people understand the national and international support and the policy changes regarding the pandemic after last year’s protests as an encouragement to dare additional protests? For sure citizens will continue to make their voices heard – and we will keep tracking online debates and potential offline protests all throughout 2023 with our “China Spektrum” project.
You can find all China Spektrum publications in German here.