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One man’s crisis of confidence in China

Jennifer Pak Oct 2, 2023
Heard on:
A bustling market in China's Liaoning province. China's economy has not rebounded as quickly as anticipated, partly because of a lack of confidence among its people. STR/AFP via Getty Images

One man’s crisis of confidence in China

Jennifer Pak Oct 2, 2023
Heard on:
A bustling market in China's Liaoning province. China's economy has not rebounded as quickly as anticipated, partly because of a lack of confidence among its people. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Recently, I received a few messages from someone I’d met a few times before.

“Hey, you in town?” he asked. “Can we talk?”

We met outdoors in Shanghai, in a place where there would be less of a chance that the conversation would be monitored.

“Jim” is in his 30s. I am not using his real name because he could be accused of being unpatriotic, or worse, by the Chinese police. He intends to “run,” a term that became popular after the 2022 Shanghai lockdown, meaning relocate abroad.

“Why am I leaving?” Jim said. “Because the pandemic changed me.”

China’s economy has not been recovering very quickly, even after it dropped its zero-COVID policy 10 months ago. This is partly due to a lack of confidence. A spokesperson at China’s national statistics bureau said in August that the country’s policymakers must, among other things, “shore up confidence.”

Shanghai residents line up for PCR COVID tests during the city's biggest lockdown in April 2022.
Shanghai residents line up for another round of COVID tests in April 2022. The city’s 25 million people were subject to the decisions of their Communist neighborhood committees for testing times, whether they could go to work, order food delivery or even go out to see a doctor. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

When Jim lived in the countryside, he longed to come to Shanghai. At our meeting, he pointed out that — before the pandemic — Shanghai cops were polite. It was a place he felt he could go about life without feeling the heavy hand of the Communist government. That perception changed during the 2022 lockdown in Shanghai.

Twenty-five million residents in the financial hub were suddenly forced to stay home under President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy.

Communist neighborhood committees, which many Shanghai residents had had minimal interaction with before then, had final say in people’s everyday decisions, like whether they could order food delivery or even see a doctor.

“Suddenly, I felt my life and liberty were under threat,” Jim said. “I realized there is a power that could make me do whatever it wanted and I had to comply.”

That is when Jim started thinking about a different life — possibly in a different country.

I sensed a bit of that shift when I first met Jim last year. It was in the middle of the lockdown; some of us were allowed to mill around the block.

Jim was telling me he was not that optimistic about the future when his friend cut him off: “Hey! Stop with your negative energy!”

The term “negative energy” is a play on the Chinese government media’s emphasis on stories with “positive energy” about the Communist government. For example, in the middle of lockdown, the government-run newspaper China Daily ran an article headlined “Shanghai maps out return to normal plan” with a photo of a shopper at a food market, while the People’s Daily posted photos of people at bus stops and a child getting a haircut on its social media feed. These gave the illusion that Shanghai was coming out of a lockdown, when in fact most residents were not allowed to leave their homes.

Jim’s friend was warning him about complaining and possibly veering into politically sensitive territory. “It’s fine, she is with the foreign media,” Jim said, referring to me. “It’s OK for her to report what I’m saying.”

This willingness to speak to me — a journalist from a U.S. media outlet — is new. Usually, it’s hard to interview people here.

On the eve of June 1, 2022, some residents set off fireworks when they heard that most of Shanghai would be out of lockdown. The celebration proved premature.

It would take another six months before China’s government officially dropped zero-COVID restrictions in December.

“At first, consumer spending did pick up after the restrictions were initially lifted. But this year, you could really feel the spending slowdown,” Jim said.

A traffic cop in Shanghai walks to direct traffic in September 2023.
A Shanghai police officer in the middle of traffic. People from China’s countryside tend to see Shanghai cops as more professional and polite than their peers in the rest of the country. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

He has also saved enough to start up a food business. However, when Chinese regulators went after Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, Jim thought twice about being an entrepreneur.

I’m sure Ma was scared to death by the government investigations,” Jim said. “It felt like he was getting killed [businesswise].”

Add on the constant news about China’s military exercises along the Taiwan Strait and tensions with the U.S., Jim said that, for the first time in his life, he feels unsettled.

“I have no sense of security,” Jim said. “What can give me confidence? Just democracy and freedom.”

Jim said he has worked his whole life to get to Shanghai. Now, he is in the financial hub and owns his own property, but he is willing to leave all that behind just for a chance to start over in the West.

It won’t be easy. He might not get all his money out because China has capital controls. There are also reports of Chinese immigration officials asking people who leave China a lot more questions.

China will still be a powerful country, no doubt,” Jim said. “But its citizens will become weaker.”

I shook his hands and wished him good luck. Jim walked off.

I hope he reaches out if and when he is abroad.

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

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