Addressing his nation on New Year’s Eve, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned of dangers ahead. National rejuvenation, he announced, will be no “walk in the park.” He said “we must always keep a long-term perspective, and attain the broad and great while addressing the delicate and minute.”
No task seems too small for Xi, a reputed micromanager who has been called the “chairman of everything.” He personally signs off on corruption investigations, drafts urban blueprints and decides on ecological matters such as the management of lakes. State media has even reported his instructions on how to improve public toilets.
But none of this means that the Chinese president—elevated last year to a place in the national firmament equal to that of Mao Zedong—backs away from grand challenges. Indeed, just the opposite.
In the past year, Xi’s campaign for “common prosperity” has shaken the foundations of the world’s second largest economy as he simultaneously attacks capitalist excesses in the private sector (the source of most new Chinese jobs) and pricks the housing bubble (the source of most Chinese growth).
Presenting himself as an avowed Marxist with a moralist streak, Xi has taken on the country’s billionaire class and taken down its movie stars. On top of all this, he is holding firm on the country’s “Covid-zero,” policy, an all but impossible task that demands both micro-controls—severe and rapid lockdowns at the neighborhood level—and sweeping macro-interventions.
How sweeping? The city of Xi’an went into full shutdown mode so suddenly that its 13 million people had no time to stock up on food; pictures posted to social media showed neighbors bartering cartons of cigarettes for groceries. In Tianjin, officials tested all 14 million of its residents—twice—after discovering a few dozen cases of omicron.
The Xi era has been marked by an accelerating series of bold economic policy initiatives, ideological campaigns and political crackdowns that have roiled the country from top to bottom.
One striking example of Xi’s towering ambitions, and the attention to intimate detail he requires to accomplish them, is Xinjiang.
In the far western region, authorities are conducting a social experiment (labeled a genocide by the U.S.) on a vast scale—to persuade Muslim Uighurs through detention, alleged forced labor or worse to act as if they are patriotic, party-loving citizens of the Chinese state. The effort, which has reportedly entailed locking up more than a million people, begins by prying into the innermost lives of the entire population. Blanket electronic surveillance aims to spot changes in individual behavior that supposedly indicates potential extremist thoughts, like giving up smoking or drinking, or spending more time in prayer.
China’s Communist rulers have always worried about their borderlands, which are home to many of the country’s 55 ethnic groups. Xi’s approach has been to settle the problem once and for all by redefining what it means to be Chinese. His government has determined that Uighurs must be integrated into the Han Chinese mainstream—whether they like it or not.
Meanwhile, China’s propaganda operation is seeking to retool the culture of the Chinese heartland.
Examples are a media campaign aimed at K-pop stars and their Chinese lookalikes—seen by Xi as poor role models for the country’s young men. When appearing on television, their earlobes are blurred to hide piercings and jewelry. In a similar vein, soccer players have taken to hiding their tattoos by wearing long sleeves.
The fervent nature of Xi’s measures arguably recall the mass mobilization of Maoist times, a campaign that one should recall eventually sapped the energy of both the bureaucracy and the Chinese people.
And there are growing signs of public fatigue. A stoic patience in the face of lockdowns appears to be wearing thin. In Xi’an, popular anger erupted after a pregnant woman lost her baby at the front door of a hospital that refused her entry because of Covid restrictions. Residents have been publicly grumbling about food shortages.
A somber mood hangs over the Chinese economy. Once exuberant consumers are reining in spending. Apartment sales are tumbling as buyers lose confidence in what was once a sure investment. Faced with an increasingly uncertain future, young couples are putting off children: the number of births in 2021 was the lowest in modern history, barely exceeding the number of deaths.
Weary and stressed-out as they chase dwindling career opportunities, some young Chinese are engaging in an act of resistance: they are “lying flat,” doing the bare minimum to survive.
Instead of Xi’s imagined “great rejuvenation,” the common denominator among China’s youth is beginning to look like the great exhaustion.