BY AMY E. GADSDEN, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
Protests in China in response to the government’s harsh “Zero COVID” rules became the largest since the 1989 Tiananmen incident. They are bigger, bolder and more broadly supported than anything China has seen in the last 30 years. After making worldwide headlines, the unrest recently led to the easing of some COVID-19 policies.
While many questions remain, including whether the protests will continue to spread, whether there will further loosening of rules or whether protests will ultimately be quashed by the authorities, they make one thing crystal clear: China can change, and its seemingly relentless slide toward greater authoritarianism is not inevitable. The assumption, widely repeated by Western policymakers, CEOs and analysts, that China cannot change is misplaced. We need to rethink it — and that is the most important message we should be taking from the protestors.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) draconian handling of COVID-19 has fundamentally contributed to Chinese citizens reaching this desperate point. But make no mistake, for many in China these protests are about more than just COVID-19. The core question animating protestors’ concerns is “are we confident that the future will be better than the present?” After the devastation of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution the 1960s and 70s, the Communist Party struck a deal with its citizens: Allow us to remain in power and tomorrow will be better than today. But in 2022, few in China are confident about what the future holds.
Since the beginning of the Reform and Opening Up in the late 1970s, the prospect of a brighter tomorrow in China was clear. The baseline, of course, was low. In 1975, China’s GDP per capita was less than $200 and industry and had been decimated by 25 years of politicized party rule. But, still, Chinese citizens enjoyed unprecedented quality of life improvements across almost every metric from the late 1970s until the 2010s. GDP per capita grew by almost 6,000 percent, life expectancy went from 59 years to 77 years (equal to the U.S.). 800 million Chinese moved above the international poverty line, and maternal mortality dropped from 80 per 100,000 live births to 18 (just one more per 100,000 than the U.S.).
At an individual level, housing and education opportunities expanded and job opportunities and job diversity grew. Chinese were able to make choices for themselves and for their families that had been denied them during the during the Maoist era, such as when to marry and when to have children. And, most importantly, while some groups in China, such as Tibetans and Uighur Muslims, still suffered under the heavy hand of Communist Party control, most majority Han Chinese could expect that their lives and their children’s lives would only improve.