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How are the Chinese responding to Xi Jinping's third term?

William Yang Taipei
November 2, 2022

While some are actively looking to leave China, others say they feel a sense of powerlessness after the party congress.

China Xi Jinping
Many Chinese citizens have been spreading anti-Xi messages both within and outside the country over the last two weeksImage: Jason Lee/AFP/Getty Images

Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping secured a precedent-busting third term and promoted his loyalists to top leadership positions in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the world has been trying to make sense of the potential impact of this new era on China.  

While Xi looks seemingly in full command, some people in China express pessimism about the country's future, while others initiate a rare global movement to oppose the Chinese leader.

For some Chinese citizens, Xi's rule over the last decade has seen commodity prices soar while wages remain stagnant. Youth unemployment rate also reached 19.9% in July, the highest since China began to release the figure in 2018.

"I feel like the value of money has been shrinking for me over the last few years," said a 30-year-old man surnamed Chen, who lives in eastern China.

"Many college graduates are unable to find jobs, which forces them to prepare for the national exam for civil servants. The constant job search has made me really exhausted and wages are generally low," he told DW, adding: "As authorities continue to tighten control over freedom of speech, I have stopped sharing posts online and have chosen to remain quiet as much as I can." 

Chen is not the only one feeling pessimistic about their prospects under Xi's third term.

Lin, a mother of two in central China who only wants to be identified by her last name due to security concerns, told DW that while Chinese citizens at the grassroots level support Xi's anti-corruption campaign and his initial efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus, citizens who pay attention to politics are still disappointed and concerned about Xi securing a third term as leader.

"Especially when he stacked the top leadership with his loyalists, some of us worry China may return to the era of Cultural Revolution," she said, adding that she doesn't see the government showing any sign of addressing the long list of economic challenges and pivoting away from the zero-Covid strategy, which has seriously affected the Chinese economy.

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The 'run philosophy'

Both Chen and Lin are part of a growing number of Chinese citizens who have started planning or thinking about leaving China. A specific phrase — "run xue," or run philosophy — has become trending on Chinese internet since the pandemic started, with inquiries about how to move abroad dominating conversations.

"I learned some basic Japanese before, so I want to run to Japan," Chen said. "But with a lot of economic pressure, I might need to take out loans in order to be able to leave China within the next year. I'm a bit confused, anxious and concerned about my future."

As for Lin, she was already thinking about emigrating to other countries prior to the 20th Communist Party Congress, but since Xi secured his third term, she is now determined to send her two children abroad. "From my perspective, sending them abroad is to choose a better environment for them, instead of just letting them experience life in other countries," she said.

"When a country is no longer governed by rule of law, those with the means should consider leaving. With Xi Jinping securing his third term and his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, I'm worried that China might become the next Russia," Lin stressed.

While some are actively looking to leave China, others say they feel a sense of powerlessness after the party congress.

"Even though many people think the trend of China's social development will become further constrained after the party congress, they might choose to mind their own businesses rather than calling for changes," said a Taiwanese marketing professional surnamed Hung, who lives in Shanghai.

"They might feel angry about the outcome, but what follows that anger is a sense of powerlessness. With China's censorship regime blocking all sensitive topics, those who want to spread certain messages online would eventually conclude that nothing seems to change, which exacerbates their sense of powerlessness," he noted.

A global anti-Xi poster movement

Apart from attempts to leave China, many Chinese citizens have been spreading anti-Xi messages both within and outside the country over the last two weeks, following a rare public protest initiated by a man surnamed Peng on October 13.

After he hung banners demanding freedom, democracy and more basic rights on a bridge in the Chinese capital Beijing, some Chinese citizens have initiated protests featuring slogans on his banners, while others have written down the slogans at bus stops or public bathrooms.

Teng Biao, a Chinese legal scholar teaching at Hunter College in New York, said that these actions are a direct reflection of the "very widespread" discontent and anger of the Chinese people toward Xi.

"All of this discontent show that the long-standing suppression and denial of basic rights in China is becoming too much for more and more people to bear," he pointed out. "This, coupled with the irrational pandemic prevention policies of the past three years, has created widespread public resentment."

In addition to sporadic protests in China, many Chinese students abroad have taken to social media to facilitate protests at hundreds of universities across the world. They have put posters on bulletin boards on campuses or distributed flyers printed with protest slogans.

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Ava, a Chinese student in Canada, told DW that the "Bridge Man" — referring to the person who hung banners on the bridge in Beijing — helped many of them overcome the sense of fear in them and take part in this worldwide poster movement.

"It's like if he can do it in Beijing, knowing the fatal risk of it, what can we do," she said. "He tapped into the Chinese reality and the real problems on the ground. That's also an important part of the whole inspiration."

Yangyang Cheng, a research scholar at Yale Law School, said the Bridge Man's action proved that protest is possible in China. "His sacrifice helped more people recognize their own power," she told DW. "The Bridge Man proved a possibility and showed others that they too have a choice."

'Recognizing their own power'

According to Citizens Daily CN, an Instagram account that's been promoting images of posters or protests submitted by Chinese students in different countries, they have received close to 2,000 images of protest banners from more than 300 universities worldwide.

To help facilitate the movement, Citizens Daily initiated "thepostermovement" on social media, hoping to let the international community better understand these Chinese students' cause. "Our goal is to help people reconnect, to chase away fear, loneliness and doubt through discussion and action," the team behind the account told DW.

Teng from Hunter College in New York said that while the risk of initiating public protests against authorities is high in China, the overseas Chinese community can play the key role of sustaining the movement.

"It would be very difficult to sustain these actions with only courage from people in China because very few people can take such risks," he underlined. "Without the support and solidarity of the international community, the future of China's struggle is also very bleak."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru