Three years prior, Wang Zhongwei had never envisioned challenging the Chinese regime. At nearly 30 years of age, he managed a thriving apparel export business in Wenzhou, China, overseeing a sizable workforce.
Initially dismissive of warnings from his brother in California regarding a burgeoning contagion in Wuhan, Hubei Province, Wang staunchly professed faith in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, the harsh reality unfolded when lockdowns transformed his city into a virtual “prison,” unveiling the extent to which the Party would go for the preservation of power.
Faced with the Party’s willingness to deceive on matters of life and death, Wang contemplated his own fate in the event of a COVID-19 demise, realizing the insignificance of an individual in the eyes of the regime.
If the pandemic marked a turning point for individuals like Wang, the past year has compounded the regime’s unfavorable standing. Three years of relentless lockdowns have crippled hundreds of thousands of private enterprises, including Wang’s, severely impacting a sector employing approximately 80 percent of the Chinese workforce, just as the youth and educated struggle to secure employment.
Hope for economic relief in 2023 dissipated as Chinese policymakers, despite repeated efforts to provide financial support to small businesses and stimulate domestic spending, failed to generate the anticipated economic recovery.
Governments grappling with financial constraints have slashed workers’ salaries and delayed bonuses, exemplified by a public hospital in Gansu Province falling 15 months behind on wages. Plummeting demand has forced a medical equipment supplier in Shenzhen to implement up to 10 months of unpaid leave for employees, with similar measures adopted by manufacturers in neighboring Guangdong Province.
Amid the economic downturn, Bestore, a prominent Chinese snack brand, reduced prices on nearly 300 products by up to 45 percent, acknowledging the constrained consumer spending environment in its first year of declining sales in 17 years.
The prevailing pessimism has permeated all facets of Chinese society. The heavily indebted real estate market is rife with frustrated owners of incomplete properties left behind by bankrupt developers. Housing prices have plummeted so drastically in some cities that property holders offer newly furnished houses for free to escape monthly mortgage payments.
Debt has emerged as a glaring issue, with missed loan or mortgage payments leading to approximately 8.6 million Chinese individuals being added to a court blacklist, a figure surging by 50 percent since the beginning of 2020.
In a global context, concerns over China’s faltering economy intensified as Moody’s downgraded the country’s government credit ratings to negative from stable in December. In a bid to stifle dissenting voices domestically, China’s top intelligence unit elevated discussions about the economy to a matter of national security, suggesting criminal liability for those criticizing the economy on social media and other platforms.
While Beijing endeavors to control the narrative, faith in Party leader Xi Jinping and the communist system diminishes. A senior Chinese media executive revealed conversations with high-ranking officials expressing serious reservations about the country’s current state, with elites using their status to relocate assets and children abroad.
Even the more affluent citizens faced challenges accessing food and medical assistance during the three years of virtual imprisonment, prompting some to entrust their life savings to strangers for clandestine cash transfers out of the country. China witnessed the highest number of millionaire departures globally, with 13,500 ultra-rich individuals estimated to have left in 2023.
The exodus extends beyond the wealthy, with tens of thousands of Chinese citizens fleeing the country, exemplified by a tenfold increase in arrivals at the U.S.–Mexico border. Chinese social media users, seeking ways to migrate, conducted 510 million searches in a single day, prompting WeChat to swiftly erase the keyword from its ranking history.
A shift in sentiment among China’s top echelons is particularly alarming for the regime, given its historical emphasis on co-opting elites to maintain support. Dissatisfaction centers on the shrinking economic opportunities, prompting Party boss Xi to advocate for a strict economy in government organizations.
Despite the opacity of the Party apparatus, recent actions, such as firing hand-picked leaders and expelling military generals, indicate a sense of insecurity within the regime. Yuan Hongbing, a Chinese dissident, suggests that such purges are not about leaking secrets or corruption but reflect disapproval of Xi Jinping’s policies.
Amidst economic challenges, China faces additional troubles such as flooding, drought, and hail affecting the country’s grain production. The regime’s continued cover-up of new viral outbreaks adds to public discontent. Despite claims of creating a common destiny for mankind, China’s international standing has eroded due to military aggression, human rights abuses, and economic coercion, isolating the regime from the West.
Geopolitical tensions, coupled with internal dissent, have led to a shift in the stance of even staunch China supporters. Investment firm Vanguard abandoned plans to expand its China presence, and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon hinted at exiting the country if mandated by the U.S. government. Foreign investors withdrew $12 billion from China in the three months through September 2023, marking the first such cash run since 1998.
Dissent within China is becoming more pronounced, with over 1,900 protests and strikes recorded by China Labour Bulletin in 2023. This surge reflects the desperation of the working class, increasingly challenging to suppress as economic conditions worsen.
China’s youth, a significant portion of whom are out of work and school, display a determination to resist the regime’s directives. As Xi urges them to “eat bitterness,” some young adults advocate “tangping,” or lying flat and doing nothing, signifying a form of passive resistance.
Miles Yu, a principal China policy strategist, notes that the real problem lies in the overwhelming loss of confidence in the system, even if the economy were to recover. The choice seems to be either passive resistance or emigration, reflecting the populace’s diminishing faith in the regime.
The fragility of the regime became evident in late November 2022 when widespread protests erupted over deaths in a locked-down Xinjiang building. Participants, holding up blank sheets of paper, demanded the Communist Party’s resignation—a bold move not witnessed on such a scale since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Despite subsequent repression, the act of defiance lingers in the public consciousness, as evidenced by Halloween protests in Shanghai. Individuals like Zhang Junjie, who participated in the protests, faced expulsion from school, confinement in a mental ward, and threats from Chinese authorities. Despite the challenges, these activists remain resolute, viewing their actions as an honorable stand against an increasingly vulnerable CCP.