The new generation are victims of forced collective amnesia — with little sense of how hard the state is willing to crush dissent.
“Chinese people should be braver!” the young man with a handful of yellow flowers exhorted the large crowd gathered in central Shanghai on Sunday. “Am I breaking the law by holding these flowers? They don’t dare to arrest us!”
Moments later he was tackled by plain-clothed agents and uniformed police and bundled, struggling, into the back of a cruiser.
As I watched scenes like this on social media over the weekend, it struck me how successfully Xi Jinping’s Communist Party has erased the traces of its brutality — from Mao’s Great Leap Famine and Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square massacre to the crushing of the Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong people.
Each time the authorities grabbed somebody or laid into the crowd, the reaction was disbelief: “They’re beating people!” “We’re all Chinese,” or even, somewhat ironically, “Serve the people!” — the phrase adorning the main entrance to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing.
The brave young people who came out on scores of college campuses and on streets of major cities at the weekend are tragic victims of enforced collective amnesia. They have no idea what is in store for them.
As a reporter in China for more than two decades, I witnessed hundreds of protests and acts of civil disobedience. I sought these out to get a sense of the wider mood of the nation. Almost without exception, they involved localized or isolated grievances. All of them ended in a brutal crackdown.
More often than not, the protesters would espouse loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and central government leadership, while railing against the provincial cadres they blamed for pollution, corruption or petty malfeasance. Their plight almost never resonated beyond their immediate communities.
The only times I witnessed anything like nationwide protests were when the CCP orchestrated them — against the United States after it bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and periodically against Japan when the leadership wanted to whip up nationalist fervor.
Calls for democracy
So it was astonishing to hear people openly calling for democracy, the end of party rule and the toppling of Xi at the weekend.
Something has definitely changed in the mood of the Chinese nation and it does not bode well for Xi or the CCP. This is not just pent-up frustration from three years of COVID lockdowns and a moribund economy. It is the consequence of a decade of steadily worsening repression, following two decades (the 1990s and 2000s) of relative loosening.
It is also the result of a propaganda and information control system that has been all too successful, until now.
Every historical injustice at the hands of foreigners is drilled into young minds from kindergarten while libraries, schools and the internet are purged of all mention of the tens of millions who perished thanks to CCP policy.
I was once approached on a reporting trip by a slightly confused six-year-old who plucked up the courage to ask me why I had burned down the Summer Palace in Beijing — as a member of the Anglo-French occupying forces in 1860. He definitely had never heard of the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen massacre.
All news and information from abroad is heavily censored and all domestic information tightly controlled, with uniformed police officers stationed in the offices of large Chinese tech companies and paramilitary troops on every university campus.
It was almost comical this weekend to watch Chinese state media tie itself in knots trying to blame the protests, which can’t be mentioned directly, on “Western media,” which is almost entirely blocked in China.
Since they have little or no knowledge of past atrocities, young Chinese mostly believe the motherland loves them and would never really harm them.
But the same applies to Xi and his minions. By turning the Chinese internet into a giant, sanitized, intranet, and without the ultimate barometer of public opinion — elections — they deny themselves proper intelligence on the mood of the masses.
So they start to get high on their own supply.
That is what happened with “COVID-zero” — a signature Xi policy that allowed China to avoid high infection and death rates seen elsewhere but which, after three years, has left the economy floundering and the country closed off from a world that has moved on.
Xi and his underlings have often lauded the superiority of the Chinese political system in keeping Chinese people safe from the terrible virus. But this gloating wasn’t accompanied by a superior vaccine or a plan, other than harsh lockdowns, to deal with the more infectious outbreak we now see in the country.
The ostensible trigger for the weekend’s protests was a horrific fire that killed at least 10 in the city of Urumqi, the regional capital of the Xinjiang region where the party has incarcerated millions of Uyghurs and other Muslims in “re-education camps.” The city has been locked down for months and many blamed the deaths on COVID restrictions that sealed most exits and obstructed the fire department.
The shocking sight of huge maskless crowds at the World Cup in Qatar certainly contributed to widespread anger as COVID cases hit record highs and many cities went back into lockdown. In a belated attempt to fix their mistake, the authorities have apparently banned close-up shots of the Qatar crowds.
After more than a decade on the throne, Xi has consolidated more formal power than any leader since Mao Zedong. But he has created legions of enemies in the process and, for the first time in decades, people are openly calling for wholesale political change in China.
That is why his reaction will be swift and brutal, using all the tools of digital totalitarianism.
On Monday, I watched another poignant video filmed at Peking University that morning, where a student is snatched by a group of plain-clothed thugs and bundled off, but not before he yells out: “Give me liberty or give me death!”
The idealistic people who came out over the weekend do not realize what horrors await them. But at least the mask has slipped and the Chinese masses can see the true face of the regime that rules them.