The Bund Bull statue and a screen displaying a thank you message for healthcare workers in Shanghai on June 1, 2022. Photo: Bloomberg
My Take
by Zhou Xin
My Take
by Zhou Xin

China’s national ambitions have become untethered from personal aspirations in the name of zero Covid

  • Lockdown fatigue and fear of a mostly non-lethal virus has left China’s entrepreneurial class discouraged, hurting the people needed to achieve national goals
  • Personal and national goals were once aligned during China’s opening up, which unleashed a wave of entrepreneurship among those seeking a better life

Among the many theories explaining China’s economic lift-off since the early 1980s, one is about ambition: The reform and opening-up policy adopted by Deng Xiaoping unleashed the personal ambition of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens who were encouraged to envision new possibilities.

Under mottos such as “to get rich is glorious”, people in China became eager to find ways to better their lives. The ensuing rise in entrepreneurship, which proliferated through all social classes, has become a hallmark of Chinese society. The common dream of getting rich among the Chinese public is often regarded as the raw engine of the country’s “economic miracle”.

The overzealous pursuit of growth and wealth can be problematic, especially when laws have not caught up to the times or people have forgotten their moral compass. This has given Chinese society a reputation for being “chaotic”, with less respect these days for tradition and nature. Social and economic problems, such as a widening wealth gap and rent-seeking behaviour, have mushroomed in the past four decades. People have become richer, but not necessarily happier.

In general, though, the pursuit of wealth has helped China realise its goal of reversing decades of economic decline to become a rich, powerful country. Now the country’s “dynamic zero Covid-19” policy is putting this source of China’s success at risk, disconnecting the links between individual ambition and national goals.

How China’s rigid Covid policy paralyses its manufacturing heartland

Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 is ultimately about safeguarding public health and proving its effective governance. Yet the implementation of the policy has upended people’s lives and shattered the dreams of many, especially private business owners. Behind every closed shop in Shanghai, there is a story of disappointment and despair.

For many Chinese people, it has started to feel as if life has turned against them. Many have scaled back their ambitions. For Chinese entrepreneurs, the priority is no longer about expansion or searching for new opportunities – it is to shrink and survive. For consumers, discretionary spending is down as people are forced to cut back to afford necessities such as food. Young jobseekers are also flocking to government positions that offer better job security than the private sector.

Uncertainty in China is so intense that seemingly everyone is just trying to “lose less”, rather than “win more”. This is not a sustainable situation for a rising economic power. The national government’s grand ambitions for the country must once again align with the personal aspirations of its 1.4 billion citizens.

For now, it looks as though people are becoming less ambitious out of fear of a coronavirus variant that is no longer lethal to the vast majority of those who are infected. It is saddening to see.