Young People in China Are Losing Faith in the West

And that spells trouble for liberal democracy and Beijing’s relations with Washington.

By Eyck Freymann, the director of Indo-Pacific at Greenmantle, and Brian Y.S. Wong, the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review.
A woman wearing a face mask holds a sign during a rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence near Chinatown in Los Angeles, California, on Feb. 20.
A woman wearing a face mask holds a sign during a rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence near Chinatown in Los Angeles, California, on Feb. 20. Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

Since the fall of the Qing dynasty more than a century ago, young Chinese have repeatedly pressed their country’s leaders to learn lessons from the West. In 1919, the student-led May Fourth Movement demanded a break from old Confucian ways and an embrace of women’s rights and individualistic social values. In 1989, student protesters in Tiananmen Square built a Statue of Liberty out of papier-mache and called on the Chinese Communist Party to adopt democratic political reforms

More recently, a generation of Chinese graduates from foreign universities have returned home and used virtual private networks to read foreign news, check Facebook, and stay plugged into the outside world. But today, many young Chinese citizens are not only angry about U.S. foreign policy—they are also expressing growing disdain for the West’s most fundamental social and political ideas. This is an epochal shift, and it will have profound implications for China’s future and for the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

Chinese youth have raised two main critiques of the Western model. The first is that the recent spate of hate crimes against ethnic Chinese in the United States, which has received intense attention in China, reveal the “white supremacy” at the heart of Anglo-Saxon culture: a fear of ethnically Chinese people and a contempt for Chinese values. The second is that Western countries’ abject failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic proves that liberal democracy is inferior to Chinese meritocratic, one-party rule. This is a potent combination.

“In their bones, [Anglo-Saxons] harbor unspeakable cultural racism,” wrote the blogger Chairman Rabbit, the Harvard-educated grandson of Ren Zhongyi, a famous Chinese statesman who advocated for political reform in the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras. “They believe that Western civilization is better and more advanced, while Chinese civilization is backward.” Last month, star NBA player Jeremy Lin wrote on Facebook that another player had called him “coronavirus” on the court. The story barely drew attention in the United States, but on Chinese social media, it became a trending topic. “Systemic racial discrimination is everywhere in the United States,” read one headline.

In China, the terms “Western imperialism” and “white supremacy” used to refer to historical episodes: the Century of Humiliation or the Eight-Nation Alliance that occupied Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. Now, young Chinese invoke the term “white supremacy” to explain current events, specifically reports of assaults on ethnic Chinese overseas and the U.S. government’s crackdown on professors and graduate students at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and elsewhere who have failed to disclose ties to China. One story reported “54 American scientists were forced to lose their jobs, and most of them were Asian and Chinese. … These investigations are deliberately targeting and persecuting the Chinese.”

For more than a century, many of China’s most important intellectuals have traveled abroad to study, teach, and work. Headlines such as these may begin to change that. An ominous decoupling in Sino-American relations and an end to the era where a Western education conferred prestige and professional opportunities back in China may be in the offing.

Meanwhile, Western countries’ botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic has convinced many Chinese citizens that liberal-democratic political institutions can’t solve big problems. Zhang Weiwei, dean of the China Research Institute at Fudan University and a prominent public intellectual, summed up the zeitgeist on television last month. First, Zhang mocked the United States for its hypocrisy in lecturing China about human rights while around 3,000 U.S. citizens a day were dying of COVID-19. “If the right not to die from a deadly virus is not a human rights issue, what is?” he asked. Arguing that the Chinese government wiped out the virus entirely in the spring of 2020, he urged the American people to take to the streets to demand that their government do the same. “American lives matter!” he jabbed.

Zhang claimed the United States is attacking China’s governance model to distract from its own shortcomings. Western societies and political institutions elevate self-interested and often incompetent leaders, he argued, and encourage citizens to act selfishly and divide into antagonistic partisan camps. By contrast, the argument goes, the “China model” theorized by the pro-Beijing Canadian scholar Daniel Bell elevates the most competent people to positions of responsibility—and empowers them to act decisively in the general interest. The global pandemic proves the superiority of the Chinese model, Zhang argued. Liberal democratic governments could not get their populations to make the small individual sacrifice of submitting to a strict but temporary lockdown, even if the outcome would be a massive collective benefit. (Zhang did not discuss Taiwan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Australia, all multiparty democracies that addressed the virus at least as quickly as China did.)

The pandemic is also being used to justify limits on free speech. “The United States is entering a ‘post-truth era,’” Zhang said. “About half of the population does not believe in the government, and a large proportion of people do not believe in science or any authoritative scientific institutions. As a result, everything,” he explained, “is politicized and controversial.” Characterizing China’s internet censorship as a positive, he pointed out that since the initial outbreak in Wuhan more than a year ago, Chinese internet censors have strictly controlled public expression on social media about the pandemic. Removing “misleading or false information,” he argued, helps to preserve social stability and harmony.

There are, of course, numerous rumors that Western countries are censoring the public debate in similar ways but without the social benefits. “When it comes to the topic of China and the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘free speech’ is being rolled back more and more in the United States,” one journalist in China wrote. “The voices of ordinary users are weak in the face of giants,” namely Amazon and Twitter.

In short, after a painful early experience in Wuhan, Beijing’s relative success at conquering the pandemic may have convinced many young, foreign-educated Chinese that China’s political and social values produce better outcomes than Western ones.

Agree with Zhang’s sentiments or not, but they do have something to say about the direction of Chinese foreign policy and public opinion. To be sure, these examples cover only a small selection of the debates in Chinese social media. And China’s internet is a tightly controlled environment: Citizens who disagree cannot respond in the West’s defense. Yet multiple surveys confirm the nationalistic turn in the Chinese political discourse reflects a genuine change in attitudes, not just a dialing-up of Chinese Communist Party propaganda. In an April 2020 survey of nearly 20,000 Chinese citizens, nearly half of respondents said they had become more trusting of their national government. Only 3.3 percent of the polled reported lower trust in leaders after the epidemic. Chinese leaders’ approval ratings during the outbreak sat at more than 90 percent.

These trends have long-term implications for Chinese domestic politics and U.S.-Chinese relations.

Fear of COVID-19, hate crimes, and racial discrimination has already driven many talented and open-minded Chinese students at foreign universities to return home rather than settle in the West. The annual growth in number of Chinese students enrolled in the United States plunged to less than 1 percent, a marked low in the recent decade. Largely as a result, the current generation of Chinese youth could be the first since the Cultural Revolution to be more patriotic and ideologically engaged than their parents. This will inevitably steer the direction of Chinese policy in a more nationalist and culturally assertive direction. As Peter Hays Gries pointed out more than a decade ago, the Chinese Communist Party can turn up the temperature of nationalist sentiment when it wants to, but turning down the temperature is not so easy.

Liberal democratic governments have no silver bullet for convincing Chinese youth that their political values are better than autocratic ones. But they can and must do more to confront the epidemic of anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment. The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate received more than 2,800 reports of hate incidents directed at Asian Americans in the United States last year. Countless more were never reported. Addressing this problem is not only a moral imperative for any open society; it is also a foreign-policy issue with long-term implications for national security.

One Chinese observer, commenting on the situation in the United States today, drew a parallel to the early days of the Cold War. In the 1930s, the author noted, a Chinese student named Qian Xuesen went to the United States to study. He graduated from MIT and California Institute of Technology and worked as an aviation engineer in the United States. But in the 1950s, accused of communism by the McCarthyite mob, Qian returned to China.

By the mid-1960s, he had founded China’s missile program.

Eyck Freymann is the author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World and the director of Indo-Pacific at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic advisory firm.

Brian Y.S. Wong is the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review and a Rhodes scholar from Hong Kong.