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Young Chinese Are Despairing of a Zero-COVID Future

Draconian policies leave little economic or political hope.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
People line up for a nucleic acid test in Beijing.
People line up for a nucleic acid test in Beijing.
People line up for a nucleic acid test to detect COVID-19 at a testing site in Beijing on July 5. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

On Sept. 18, a bus carrying 47 people to a COVID-19 quarantine facility crashed in China’s Guizhou province, killing 27 people and severely injuring many more. The accident caused another round of heated—if brief—online discussion over China’s zero-COVID policies. One of the most popular comments, which went spectacularly viral before being removed by censors, asked: “What makes you think you wouldn’t be on this bus?”

For a generation of young Chinese whose lives have been reshaped by the zero-COVID policy, the disease often seems less of a threat than the government. “We might not die from covid-19, but we might die from covid-19 restrictions,” posted one acquaintance of mine, who had volunteered in Wuhan, China, at the start of the pandemic.

Many young people have accepted that COVID-19 restrictions will be part of their lives for the foreseeable future. A Shanghai resident in his early 30s described his life as “unimaginable.” He told Foreign Policy that right now, people entering public venues or taking public transportation need to show a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours and for venues like hotels and certain hospitals, a negative test taken within 48 hours is necessary. He now takes a COVID-19 test after lunch every other day, and queuing for it can take hours. Before he travels, even nearby, he checks the COVID-19 restrictions on the route.

On Sept. 18, a bus carrying 47 people to a COVID-19 quarantine facility crashed in China’s Guizhou province, killing 27 people and severely injuring many more. The accident caused another round of heated—if brief—online discussion over China’s zero-COVID policies. One of the most popular comments, which went spectacularly viral before being removed by censors, asked: “What makes you think you wouldn’t be on this bus?”

For a generation of young Chinese whose lives have been reshaped by the zero-COVID policy, the disease often seems less of a threat than the government. “We might not die from covid-19, but we might die from covid-19 restrictions,” posted one acquaintance of mine, who had volunteered in Wuhan, China, at the start of the pandemic.

Many young people have accepted that COVID-19 restrictions will be part of their lives for the foreseeable future. A Shanghai resident in his early 30s described his life as “unimaginable.” He told Foreign Policy that right now, people entering public venues or taking public transportation need to show a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours and for venues like hotels and certain hospitals, a negative test taken within 48 hours is necessary. He now takes a COVID-19 test after lunch every other day, and queuing for it can take hours. Before he travels, even nearby, he checks the COVID-19 restrictions on the route.

“It’s almost impossible for most ordinary people to live even an average life under all the strict rules and regulations,” said Xu, a woman in her 20s who asked that only her last name be used. “It takes extraordinary amounts of effort to be ordinary.” She works for a once fast-growing sector, e-commerce, where China has been the largest market in the world since 2013.

But that growth ran straight into the pandemic wall. In April, when FP spoke with Xu, total retail sales of consumer goods showed a year-on-year decrease of 11.1 percent.

Sales at Xu’s firm dropped around 50 percent this year compared to the first half of 2021. Even among the orders placed, only half of them could be delivered smoothly due to logistic and supply chain issues caused by COVID-19 lockdowns. That cut sharply into her commissions even as living expenses in Shenzhen, where she lives, rose dramatically as COVID-19 restrictions left shelves empty and trucks stuck in transit. She’s been struggling to make ends meet and is actively considering leaving Shenzhen and returning to her small hometown.

Xu is one of many young Chinese who are struggling to find a job where they can support themselves.

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate for Chinese between ages 16 to 24 in July was 19.9 percent, the highest since unemployment data was first made available by age group in 2018. Even before the pandemic, there were fears that China was producing too many graduates: In 2022, there will be a record-high 10.76 million college graduates, an increase of 1.67 million graduates year-on-year. As of the end of May, only 22 percent of male graduates and 10 percent of female graduates had signed an employment contract. (There is systematic discrimination against female workers in China, a problem predating COVID-19.)

The pandemic has also claimed plenty of firms: In the first half of 2022, around 460,000 Chinese companies announced bankruptcy. This is in line with China’s GDP growth: The economy grew 0.4 percent in the second quarter, the lowest rate of growth since the first quarter of 2020. And even those firms that survived the pandemic have become deeply risk averse and are avoiding expansion. Unfortunately for business, consumers are equally wary; when your city could be locked down at any moment, caution is the watchword all around.

Reports published by Zhaopin, one of the major recruitment sites, show college graduates this year have an expected monthly salary of 6,295 yuan (or roughly $870), a 6 percent decrease from 2021, and 55 percent of the graduates say they have lowered their expectations.

Even graduates from top colleges in China are having a tough time finding a job, in part because lots of them missed the spring recruitment season due to COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders and lockdowns. On May 13, Fudan University’s School of Management sent a letter pleading for help from alumni, hoping they could provide more jobs for the recent graduates. Young people who have already found jobs are facing risks of being laid off or seeing their salaries slashed.

Another result is a reluctance to have children—thanks not just to the economy but also to the lack of medical resources under zero-COVID. When Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered a lockdown in December 2021, videos of pregnant women being denied necessary medical treatment went viral on the internet; some women had miscarriages as a consequence. Such tragedy happened in several Chinese cities due to strict COVID-19 control policies. China’s National Health Commission admitted that COVID-19 had contributed to the decline in the country’s marriage and birth rate.

The young generation of Chinese are reluctant to have children, as data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows. By the end of 2021, the annual number of new births was 10.62 million, with a natural growth rate of 0.34 percent, the lowest since 1949. Even those figures may be too high; many demographers believe the country is already losing people.

In May, a police officer warned a young man that noncompliance with COVID-19 control and prevention policies “will influence your next three generations.” In response, the young man said, “We are the last generation, thanks,” which went viral on China’s internet. Even though the video quickly got censored—trending Weibo hashtags “last generation” and “we are the last generation, thanks” were removed—Chinese netizens are still using this phrase frequently to express their dissatisfaction toward the ruling government and their despair about the future.

Liu, a Peking University graduate student who asked to use only her last name, told Foreign Policy that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to have kids, but if she decided to have children, she wanted to make sure they had foreign residency so they had the option to leave China in the future.

She can see her own future draining away though. Before the pandemic, she would travel abroad for conferences or training, but today, the zero-COVID measures—combined with growing political nervousness about contact with foreigners—have made it impossible. More and more websites have been censored in the past few years, which makes it extremely difficult for her to conduct academic research. She is extremely concerned that the tightened censorship might affect her studies, especially after her Weibo account got blocked when she retweeted a scientific paper about the rationality of coexisting with the COVID-19 virus.

The desire to leave China has grown as the borders have closed. The Chinese government isn’t happy about this trend; on the Baidu search index, data related to keyword “immigration” is not provided. Netizens created a new term “run-ism,” meaning the intention to leave China and live somewhere else. Search terms related to “run” started to surge around early April, which was the time that Shanghai entered lockdown, and they peaked on May 12, when the “we are the last generation, thanks” video went viral. Searches for immigration have also significantly grown since February.

In many ways, this generation of young Chinese are more nationalist, thanks to compulsory patriotic education and strengthened censorship. But lately, this generation has started to realize that many benefits they take for granted—such as the convenience of online shopping and food delivery as well as the freedom of traveling abroad—could all be taken away by the government at any moment.

A senior reporter working for a state-affiliated media outlet in China told Foreign Policy that reports focusing on how terrible Western countries were seemed to get less and less attention. According to her, the strategy—using how terrible Western countries are to redirect netizens’ focus—worked well in the past few years, but it stopped working because “everyone is busy figuring their own life and work out.” When Chinese government officials posted about anti-U.S. content on Weibo during the Shanghai lockdown, for a while, many netizens used the hashtag “call me by your name” to make fun of these official and call on them to focus more on problems within China; this hashtag was later censored.

Politics are impossible to avoid. “I feel painful living in this kind of political environment,” said one Shanghai-based author who wanted to stay anonymous due to fear of retaliation. As a writer, she was more interested in history and literature than politics. “I am not interested in politics, and I don’t even watch related news, but I keep seeing tragedies happen around me.” She wanted to avoid discussing politics, but even discussing what happens in real life sometimes would be classified as “sensitive topics,” and that realization made her feel powerless.

Occasionally, anger breaks through, such as with the Oct. 13 protest against Xi and his COVID-19 policies in Beijing. But for the most part, young Chinese are frustrated and angry in the COVID-19-driven isolation of their own apartments.

Correction, Dec. 15, 2022: A previous version misstated when in the young man’s conversation with a police officer he said, “We are the last generation, thanks.”

Tracy Wen Liu is an investigative reporter, author, and translator who focuses on the U.S.-China relationship.

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