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This week, we highlight five stories that take stock of China’s difficult year, from growing censorship as Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his third term to the massive popular protests that pushed for the end of the zero-COVID policy.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief, and happy holidays.

This week, we highlight five stories that take stock of China’s difficult year, from growing censorship as Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his third term to the massive popular protests that pushed for the end of the zero-COVID policy.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

China’s Year in Review

China has experienced a difficult end to 2022. The country has only reported seven deaths from COVID-19 since lifting its strict zero-COVID policy this month, but bodies are piling up at Beijing crematoria amid a growing wave of infections. Despite censors’ best efforts, the gulf between state propaganda and reality is being mocked online. The current wave started in Beijing, but residents of other cities are now reporting widespread cases, and many people are voluntarily self-isolating.

There was little good news for the Chinese public this year. Property sales have plummeted, and prices are following. The zero-COVID policy badly damaged the Chinese economy, which is likely to be rattled again by the new wave of infections. Chinese President Xi Jinping clung to power more tightly as he began an unprecedented third term, and censorship increased. An alliance with Russia has turned into a global embarrassment, and ordinary Chinese are increasingly cut off from the world.

Below are five pieces from FP that sum up China’s rough year.

by Howard W. French, April 11

It’s difficult for people in free societies to understand the psychic burden of a political environment like China’s, where too often honest work is punished and lies rewarded. Under Xi’s rule, talentless figures rise in Chinese institutions while the gifted and intelligent often retreat from the arena. Pervasive censorship corrodes free thought: When political discussion is impossible, but the public knows the government is lying, conspiracy theories abound.

FP columnist Howard French wrote about the distorted view of the world that results from such a society after speaking with friends in China about Russia’s war in Ukraine. “These are ordinary Chinese citizens—not journalists, but well-educated people who live comfortably within the margins of the system. From a vantage point of cautious credulity, they have asked me whether it is true that Russia is fighting in—i.e., not invading—Ukraine because of rampant Nazism in that country,” he writes.

But the problem goes beyond that, French argues. “Here was the essence of the problem: Under the reign of nationalism, thinking independently and critically about the country or its leaders’ policies and actions has become an internalized taboo.”

by Bob Davis, April 24

Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton conducts an orchestra in China.

One big discussion about China in Washington focuses on whether the engagement pushed by U.S. elites for two decades was a failure. In China hawks’ view, this approach granted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) global respectability and a get-out-of-jail-free card for human rights violations—while doing nothing to alter China’s conviction that the U.S. order must be toppled. From the pro-engagement side, it helped Chinese people escape poverty through economic growth and opened the country up to the world, which will pay long-term dividends.

Veteran correspondent Bob Davis takes on both sides of the argument in this review of two books on U.S.-China relations. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton famously said, “Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet. Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” “Reading Clinton’s comments now seems not just naive but cringeworthy,” Davis writes. “China, it turns out, perfected Jell-O nailing and destroyed its own nascent online civil society.”

“But does disappointment with the turn in U.S.-China relations mean the strategy of engagement—wrapping China more closely to the United States in a web of economic and political ties—is fundamentally flawed?” Davis doesn’t come down on either side, but he takes a close look at the unspoken costs of each policy approach: growing closer to China or trying to snip ties between two deeply entangled economies.

by Helen Gao, Sept. 5

China’s current COVID-19 crisis followed many other disruptions for ordinary Chinese people, from the collapse of the property market to an online crackdown on foreign content. Beijinger Helen Gao detailed the impact of those changes and the sense of confusion among the public. “People who thought they knew how the rules worked are left bruised and betrayed. … As people reel from the policy hurricane, the bulwark they once leaned on is gone,” she writes.

“A party that has been known since the 1980s for its pragmatism and commitment to social stability has turned itself into an agent of chaos and, in extreme cases, a direct threat to people’s livelihoods.”

Gao recalls a grim joke that circulated during Shanghai’s lockdown in April that shows how life decisions seemingly backed by the government have become costly: “The unluckiest devil in 2022 China, it went, is the person who ‘lives in Shanghai, invests in stocks, works in real estate, and has a partner in after-school tutoring. … Listening to the government, he did not stock up on groceries, and under its encouragement, he now awaits the birth of his third child.’”

by Tracy Wen Liu, Oct. 24

People line up for a nucleic acid test in Beijing.

China’s zero-COVID policy also accentuated generational despair. People in their 20s now confront a dire job market, a nearly 20 percent youth unemployment rate, unaffordable home prices, and a socially intolerant government. “Lying flat” is the latest version of a recurring theme among young Chinese: minimal participation in a demanding society.

Chinese author Tracy Wen Liu traced the grim prospects of a self-described “last generation,” arguing that this lack of hope will be a major problem facing China going forward. A graduate student she interviews “can see her own future draining away though. Before the pandemic, she would travel abroad for conferences or training, but today, the zero-COVID measures—combined with growing political nervousness about contact with foreigners—have made it impossible,” Liu writes.

“Occasionally, anger breaks through, such as with the Oct. 13 protest against Xi and his COVID-19 policies in Beijing. But for the most part, young Chinese are frustrated and angry in the COVID-19-driven isolation of their own apartments,” Liu argues. Before the end of the year, China’s largest popular protests since 1989 would erupt, with young people as some of the most radical actors.

by Lynette H. Ong, Nov. 28

Zero-COVID quickly spiraled into a much larger problem for Beijing: a breakdown of the government’s ability to shape public opinion and handle social unrest. For decades, China has balanced listening to local demands and crushing wider movements, in part by cultivating neighborhood leaders and village heads to act as intermediaries—a system that was quickly overwhelmed, Lynette H. Ong argues.

“Trusted local figures draw on their social capital to persuade their fellow citizens to give consent to state policies,” Ong writes. “Oftentimes, this involves coaxing, giving some ‘carrots’ such as bonuses for early compliance, while pulling the strings of social and neighborly relations. Other times, it imposes immense psychological pressure, making it a coercive strategy that falls short of violence.”

The mass unpopularity of China’s zero-COVID policy in major cities broke this system, leading to unprecedented protests: “Any remaining trust quickly evaporated, and impatience turned into rage against the state. China’s earlier success in compliance with zero-COVID has turned into widespread resistance—not only against the policy but also against the CCP in general.”