China’s Covid Protests Highlight The Grievances Of Its Angst Generation

Chinese President Xi Jinping had reportedly blamed the protests that recently swept through many of the country’s largest cities on youth frustrated by years of strict Covid measures. Although policymakers moved quickly to ease the restrictions in order to defuse their anger, the unprecedented displays of public dissent raise an uncomfortable question: Are the good times over for China’s youth who are now contending for fewer jobs and economic opportunities?

Since China opened up to the world in 1979, it has been an article of faith that life would get better. Indeed, those born in successive decades after 1979 have witnessed a massive surge in economic opportunities and living standards. But China’s economy only expanded 3% year on year during the first nine months of the year, and it’s unlikely to meet its official year-end target of 5.5%, which is already its lowest in decades. Evidence is mounting that the heady era of near-double digit growth rates and the blossoming of entrepreneurialism that accompanied it appear to be relics of the past.

Under President Xi Jinping, China launched a series of regulatory crackdowns over the past year or so that spanned a range of sectors such as technology platforms, gaming, online finance, ride hailing, education, entertainment and real estate. Beijing has unquestionably been pushing an agenda for a more state-controlled economy in which businesses are expected to conform to political priorities.

Older generations of Chinese who suffered hardship and depredations under Mao are likely to scoff at the perception that China’s youth are now facing an uncertain future. If you were born in the early 1950s as China emerged under Communist rule, life was significantly harder because the country was poor but mostly because of Mao’s eccentricities and excesses. Millions perished in the Great Leap Forward later that decade. And if you came of age just when the Cultural Revolution gained momentum in 1966, you might have either been complicit in the chaos of that era, as many young Red Guards were, or were simply “sent away” to the provinces for a prolonged period of trauma, as Xi Jinping himself did.

Perhaps the most fortunate Chinese generation belongs to those born in the 1960s and later, too young to face the direct impact of the Cultural Revolution and just coming of age as the country changed course in 1979. Jack Ma (born in 1964) belonged to this fortunate generation as Deng Xiaoping recognized that China could only sustain high growth rates with the participation of a vibrant home-grown private sector. Ma’s peers in the tech sector—Pony Ma (founder of Tencent, born in 1971) and Zhang Yiming (founder of Bytedance, born in 1983) found boundless opportunities as China’s leaders after Deng, notably the duo of Jiang Zemin-Zhu Rongji, accelerated opportunities for the private sector.

But following that golden era, China is now wrestling with a massive challenge: Its universities are churning out more fresh graduates every year for a job market that’s struggling to absorb them. More than 10.7 million graduates were expected in 2022, an 18% jump from the prior year, government data shows. Meanwhile, China’s unemployment rate for people aged between 16 and 24 fell to about 18% in October after peaking at 20% in July. This has worrying implications for China’s existing and incoming cohort of graduates, i.e. those born in the 1990s and latter. This anxious generation has originated the phenomenon of “lying flat” or tang ping, and are opting out of engaging in what’s become known as “996” culture, an expectation that people work 12 hours a day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. And the pandemic-induced lockdowns for the past few years will have only made things worse, reducing the ability of young Chinese to socialize and interact in major urban centers.

As any parent of millennials will attest, motivating this young generation to give their best can be both challenging and rewarding. Xi’s own daughter is 30 years old and he perhaps recognizes the anxieties and aspirations of this generation. Or perhaps not as his policy actions have made clear. He should, however, be worried about the unmistakable message from the recent protests—young Chinese are no longer lying flat and are prepared to stand up for their rights.