Students have flooded social media to organize donations for Chinese doctors battling the coronavirus epidemic. Workers have marched in the streets to demand compensation for weeks of unemployment during citywide lockdowns. Young citizen journalists have taken to YouTube to call for free speech.
The coronavirus outbreak has mobilized young people in China, sounding a call to action for a generation that had shown little resistance to the ruling Communist Party’s agenda.
For much of their lives, many young Chinese have been content to relinquish political freedoms as long as the party upheld its end of an unspoken authoritarian bargain by providing jobs, stability and upward mobility. Now, the virus has exposed the limits of that trade-off.
Angry and agitated, many young Chinese are pushing back on the government’s efforts to conceal its missteps and its resistance to allowing civil society to help.
Some have spoken out about the cost of secrecy, taking aim at censorship and the muzzling of whistle-blowers. Others, by organizing volunteers and protests, have tested the party’s hostility to independent groups. Still others have sought to hold opaque state-backed charities to account by exposing how public donations were funneled first to government offices instead of hospitals.
The outbreak has prompted a generational awakening that could match the defining effects of World War II or the 2008 financial crisis and that could disrupt the social stability on which the Communist Party depends.
“These recent events have made some people see more clearly that criticizing their country does not mean they don’t love their country,” said Hannah Yang, 34, a Beijing resident who created a channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, to share screenshots of censored articles and social media posts. More than 14,000 people have joined.
“One day, there will definitely be a narrative about the recent events in China,” she said. “And at the very least we can let other people know exactly what happened here.”
As the virus continues to spread globally, similar questions — about trust in government, economic security, way of life — are sure to face young people in many countries.
But they have special resonance in China, for a generation that is largely unfamiliar with the poverty and turmoil that came to characterize the country in the decades after the Communist Revolution.
Unlike the college students whose pro-democracy protests prompted the government’s Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, this generation — brought up in a roaring economy, saturated with official propaganda — has shown little opposition to the status quo.