Commentary: Blank Sheets No More
There is no “White Paper Revolution” in China; there was only a White Paper Weekend that lasted from November 25 to 27, 2022.
Noting that the demonstrations have been over for a week does not disparage the bravery of the protestors, nor does it deny that anger over restrictions imposed on the Chinese people for the past three (and ten, and seventy-three) years continues to simmer and spread. But the vigils in China have ended for now.
The protests were easily squelched by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) security apparatus, but they were a harbinger of more unrest over the next five years. It appears that most Chinese still support Xi Jinping’s leadership. They are grateful for his anti-corruption campaign, China’s low Covid bodycount, and its enhanced global status (which inspires respect and resentment in roughly equal measure).
But liking for Xi doesn’t mean the Chinese people understand and approve the direction in which he is taking the country. Forty years of development have made them more internationalized, informed, entrepreneurial, and ambitious. They proudly envision a world in which Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are mentioned in the same breath as London, Paris, Seoul, Tokyo, and New York. Instead, Xi has given them Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, Caracas, Havana.
The Chinese people are unlikely to rebel in the wake of the White Paper protests. But they have been reminded of what it means not to be free and they understand that the CCP—not a hostile West—is the source of their frustration. They also know it is likely to get worse. Xi’s Covid experience has convinced him that inwardness, authoritarianism, and surveillance work for China. He will not abandon those beliefs as the pandemic recedes.
Now that more Chinese understand that they are repressed, they are likely to notice constraints they have always endured in ever more aspects of their daily lives. Internal pressure on Beijing to liberalize will therefore grow even as Xi tightens CCP control of Chinese society.
Over the next few years foreign policymakers and corporations should expect a slow cascade of evidence that Xi Jinping and his people desire different things. Domestic uncertainty will increase as foreign pressure on China grows. Too many cats have been let out of too many bags onto slopes made slippery by too much un-tubed toothpaste for it to be otherwise.
A version of this piece was originally published in Chinafile
About the Author
Robert Daly, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, has compiled an unusually diverse portfolio of high-level work: He has served as a U.S. diplomat in Beijing; as an interpreter for Chinese and U.S. leaders, including President Carter and Secretary of State Kissinger; as head of China programs at Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and the University of Maryland; and as a producer of Chinese-language versions of Sesame Street. Recognized East and West as a leading authority on Sino-U.S. relations, he has testified before Congress, lectured widely in both countries, and regularly offers analysis for top media outlets.Read More
Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people. Read more