The Oxford China Forum’s China Dispatch is an original newsletter that seeks to summarize the fast-changing situation in China and in Chinese communities across the world in accessible, timely stories. To be the first to receive our next edition, subscribe here. For our last issue see here.
China’s Covid-Zero Fortress
In the last month China has been repeatedly described as the world’s last major “zero-covid” country. While most other nations with sufficient vaccines have begun treading the difficult balance between an acceptable level of infections and reopening measures, China remains committed to a strategy of complete elimination.
One widely covered reason for such a stance is that extremely low Covid rates have become a point of pride in the increasingly nationalistic country. Even with the possibility of being isolated from the rest of the world for years, many Chinese people are supportive of strict quarantines, mass testing, and other elimination efforts owing to their effectiveness. Especially given new variants emerging abroad and the shocking death tolls suffered by many developed nations, Chinese citizens overwhelmingly consider themselves lucky.
Disparities in vaccine options and access are important to consider as well. More than 70% of Chinese residents have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 as of September this year, a figure that compares well with many other major countries. Most of the administered doses have been CoronaVac and Sinopharm vaccines (both based on inactivated viruses, rather than mRNA), which have been crucial in the global fight against Covid-19 — almost half of all vaccines administered globally so far have been Chinese vaccines. Relatively few Chinese have received either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines (based on mRNA), which are widely recognized as the most effective options. Chinese officials have reason to be more wary of reopening than peers in regions with similar vaccination rates, because inactivated vaccines are less potent and studies have shown that immunity acquired from CoronaVac and Sinopharm vaccines appears to wane rapidly; at the moment, local authorities are rolling out different booster-shot policies across the country.
In addition, one factor that deserves more attention is the effects of internal borders on the implementation of zero-covid in China. From the hukou system to limits on home and vehicle purchases in cities, modern China has always been deeply wary of internal migration for both economic and political reasons. In the face of the pandemic, officials everywhere made use of existing systems of limiting migration and strengthened borders between provinces and cities. Compounded with the ability to command cheap labour at short notice, the infrastructure for deterring population movement has reached levels unheard of in other countries. Chinese social media is rife with bizarre stories of users who find themselves quarantining for weeks on end due to travel histories or being refused entry to different cities or regions. Stringent measures are certainly effective for limiting the spread of the virus, but there is also frustration at unequal applications of measures and their limitations on daily life in the country
China’s leadership has revealed little about its exit strategy, and with a patchwork of policies across the country it looks like there is no central plan to move beyond zero-covid any time soon.
When Xi Jinping decided to skip a trip to Glasgow, many, including US President Joe Biden, were quick to accuse China of de-prioritizing climate action. But was Xi’s absence meaningful beyond photo-ops?
Certainly it was not good optics for the leader of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases to decline participation at COP26, a conference billed as humanity’s last chance for resolute climate action. Domestically, however, the decision to not visit the UK was likely a complex one: virtually no top Chinese politician has travelled abroad since the pandemic, and Xi himself has stayed in the country for 21 months. Experts have described a “bunker mentality” among China’s leadership: compounded by both Covid-19 and increasing multilateral tensions, a self-confident China increasingly believes that face-to-face diplomatic interactions with the rest of the world is optional.
Such a strategic reorientation has exceptions, of course. Foreign Minister Wang Yi chose to meet with US presidential envoy and climate advocate John Kerry virtually when Kerry visited Beijing in September; however, in that same month Taliban leaders enjoyed a two-day conference with Wang in Tianjin. If it is a problem of friendliness more than pandemic precautions, then Xi’s curious absence from COP26 and the G20 meeting in Rome signify further alienation from Western-led modes of global collaboration, including on the crucial issue of climate. The actual Chinese delegation at Glasgow was downsized from the usual hundreds to a mere 50, occupying an unassuming office cubicle without a display pavilion. Compared to opulent displays from the 2008 Summer Olympics onwards, nowadays Beijing may no longer be as interested in projecting an impressive, globalized image.
To what extent does this attitude threaten effective climate action? A useful line of inquiry might start with what China is capable of by itself. Ahead of COP26 China submitted its climate targets (“China’s Achievements, New Goals and New Measures for Nationally Determined Contributions”) to the UN. The country aims to reach peak emission of carbon dioxide before 2030 and net zero emissions by 2060; both targets are a regurgitation of President Xi’s virtual pledges at the UN General Assembly last year. While these targets delighted some researchers in 2020, with Asia Society senior adviser Thom Woodroofe calling it a “gamechanger”, after 12 months of grievous climate disasters many were disappointed by the lack of new updates. The tragic Henan floods this summer saw 302 deaths, and 50 people are still missing across Zhengzhou and the surrounding province.
The most populous country on earth was not absent from COP26 altogether. Most notably, the Chinese and US delegations unveiled a joint declaration at the end of the conference: the two countries commit to sharing climate-related policy and technologies, reviving a “multilateral” climate working group, and announcing new targets by 2025 for the 2030s. In other words, we have more to look forward to before a distant net-zero 2060, but little in the way of concrete numbers.
John Kerry is optimistic that meaningful action on the part of China will continue to happen given the country’s track record of overperforming on targets, a hope echoed by China policy experts like Angel Hsu. Nevertheless, it seems clear that China will stubbornly forge its own climate path. Domestically there is absolutely motivation for serious climate action, and so far nothing suggests that China’s leadership might undermine its own widely publicized goals. However, the era that saw highly committed collaborations from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement may be behind us.
Mental Health in Queer China: Beijing LGBT Centre Releases Psychological Survey
CW: discussions of suicide, homophobia, and transphobia
Between 2019 and 2020, Beijing LGBT Centre (one of the few remaining major advocacy groups for gender, sexual, and romantic minorities in mainland China) conducted an extensive survey into sexual and mental health among Chinese citizens who identify as LGBTQ+, in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Science. The results were released in English just this month, and they offer important insight into the lives of millions of Chinese who fall outside cis- and hetero-normative social expectations.
By and large, the results were predictably bleak. 59% of survey respondents experience some degree of clinical depression and 54% had suicidal ideation in the last year; of these, 13.1% have considered suicide in the last week. Participants were asked to identify factors that influenced their mental health, and the most common factors were loneliness, challenges with attachment, employment, STIs, stresses over marriage, difficulty finding partners, coming out, and education.
Overall, 45.8% of survey respondents have plans to come out. At 86.4%, the overwhelmingly number-one reason for not coming out among participants is worries over parents not accepting their gender identities and/or sexual orientations. By contrast, only 25.3% worry about being accepted by close friends. This points to a generational shift that has come to define the conversation on LGBTQ+ rights in China: young people are increasingly accepting of gender and sexual diversity, and student groups have been central to organizing for sex education and social media campaigns.
The study also included a transgender subreport to investigate mental health among trans Chinese populations. Transgender respondents experience significantly higher rates of mental ill-health: 73.3% report some leve of depression, and 40.9% have been severely depressed. Only 30.6% have never considered suicide. Of the factors affecting mental health for trans respondents, the most signficant one is “Identity Aversion”, described by the report’s authors as distress over one’s assigned sex at birth and physical development in adolescence.
Other insightful statistics from the report include:
- Levels of depression and suicidal ideation decrease notably with higher levels of educational attainment among LGBTQ+ Chinese. Nearly 20% of those with only secondary-school level educations report suicidal ideation in the last week; the figure drops to 7.5% for those with Master’s degrees or above.
- 52.9% of survey respondents look for partners online, 50.2% do so by meeting potential partners in person, and only 13.2% seek out partners through general offline activities (participants could select multiple options).
- Among cisgender sexual minorities, bisexual men were the least likely to come out: only 15.4% of bisexual men are open about their sexual orientation. By contrast, pansexual Chinese are the most likely to come out, at 37% for men and 33.7% for women. 34% of gay men and 32.5% of lesbian women surveyed in the report have come out.
- 87 out of 2964 respondents were legally married at the time of survey and 89 out of 2997 have children.
What’s on Weibo: #WhyYoungPeopleCantSaveMoney
Last month debate erupted on Weibo under the hashtag #年轻人存不住钱的原因 (#WhyYoungPeopleCantSaveMoney). While some argued that young people’s inability to maintain a rainy-day fund comes from a lack of life experience and a desire to “consume”, others pointed to steeper costs of living and lagging salaries. Amidst the warring sides, many poked fun at those blaming youth, with one user writing that China’s packed festival calendar is the root of their financial woes.
It is no secret that many young people in Europe and North America struggle to save money. A combination of rising prices, expensive rent, and entry-level salaries is certainly forcing many young people to question whether they will ever be able to save, let alone buy a house or look to retirement. China is not immune to these factors. In rapidly-developing Shenzhen, a magnet for young graduates, home prices are the highest in the country, leading the government to mandate that 10% of new homes be affordable. The government defined “affordable” particularly in relation to young people.
It may come as a surprise then that young people would be blamed for their inability to save given that these economic factors have entered into the limelight. However, a 2020 report on consumerism from McKinsey in China does note that in “lower-tier cities”, “a segment of consumers … continues spending money freely without any worry about cost or saving for the future”. It also draws attention to the record-breaking spending on “Singles Day”, China’s annual November 11th equivalent of Black Friday, as evidence of such habits. On the other hand, it notes that in “large, expensive cities”, that is Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai, economic forces are causing shoppers to rethink some of their expenses.
Given the expensive reality that many young urbanites face, it is unfair to blame them for feeling as though their money slips through their fingers, or more likely their AliPay wallet, before they even have the chance to grasp it. Although, it is also fair to suggest that one could be more frugal, though perhaps a lack of financial education is more to blame. But this is not what is most striking (nor unique) about the debate. Rather, it is the palpable exasperation coming from young workers trying to enjoy life while also being sensible. It is reminiscent of ‘Boomer’ memes that flooded English-language social media in response to bizarre headlines such as the infamous 2016 article from Business Insider on how “Millennials are killing the napkin industry”.
Naturally, the language and the stakes on Weibo are different. Many of the posts blaming young people displayed an intensity in their language such as that “buying and borrowing […] will drag you into the abyss” and to “not be fooled by vanity”. One user went as far to suggest that young people are “brainwashed by consumerism”. Research from McKinsey backs up the suggestion that China’s ‘Gen-Z’ are more ‘impulsive’. But, it also notes that these spending habits are driven by other societal changes: this is after all a wealthier China, in which young people believe they will earn more.
While it is true that many young people may not have the financial skills they need, financial sermons have fallen on deaf ears. One post mocking the suggestion that young people are to blame which garnered over 50000 likes reads “Stop! Asking! Why! I’m! Poor!” with a picture that lists reasons such as “January’s money is saved for Chinese New Year, and February for Valentine’s Day and March for Qingming Festival” and so on.
What this post also suggests is that the spending problems of young people, even if they are because of “extravagance” or “unnecessary” spending, do not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, what may seem like “extravagance” is revealed as a social and societal necessity.
The Good, The Tall, and The Ugly: One Month in Chinese Architecture
On November 12th, Hong Kong’s new M+ Museum opened after years of waiting. Variously described as “highly anticipated” and “a rival to MoMA”, the M+ promises to be a new venue for modern visual culture. Like the pieces within, the museum itself is visually striking, blurring the boundary between the museum’s collections and its casing. After a design competition, Swiss Architecture Firm Herzog & de Meuron were awarded the contract. The building features a main pavilion with a tower emerging from the middle, giving it the shape of an upside-down T. The side of the tower is fitted with capabilities to display large digital works that could be seen from across Hong Kong’s Victoria harbour, meaning that art will both be displayed within and on the building.
The opening of the M+ comes at a time when authorities in the Mainland have cracked down on excessive and unnecessary buildings. After banning ‘ugly’ buildings, the government has now banned supertall skyscrapers in smaller cities. According to the new rules, in cities with less than three million people, towers above 250 metres will be banned while those over 150 metres will be limited. In larger cities, towers over 500 metres are banned while those above 250 metres are limited. Reasons given for the bans include a focus on safety with earthquake proofing and firefighting at the top of the list as well as a push to end vanity buildings. The new regulations put functionality over form as according to Zhang Shangwu, deputy head of Architecture at Tongji University, designers are too “anxious to produce something that can go down in history” meaning that they go to the “extremes in novelty and strangeness”.
Novelty and strangeness in architecture has also been in the spotlight as Chinese architecture website archcy.com has brought back its annual “ugliest building contest” for the eleventh year running. 87 buildings are in competition for public votes, including a violin-shaped church and a mock-European art centre. The competition aims to “spark discussion” around “beauty and ugliness” as well as architect’s “social responsibility”. While the government’s new regulations won’t prevent the competition from finding enough ugly buildings in the future, it will be entertaining to see what new weird and wacky forms architecture takes on next in China.