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How Communist China Accidentally Created A New Generation Of Pro-Democracy Activists

The participation of Chinese youth, especially college students, in anti-government protests spells particular trouble for Beijing.


The recent anti-government protests in China have attracted Chinese people from all walks of life. One protest group that stood out is Chinese youth, especially college students. Their participation in anti-government protests spells particular trouble for Beijing.

Today’s Chinese college students were mostly born after 2003 and have no memories of the atrocities the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has committed since 1949. The CCP has worked hard to erase its bloody history between 1949 and 1989 (including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre) from the Chinese people’s collective memory. Students’ only exposure to that period is from a few historically inaccurate paragraphs in their history textbooks. Government censors also quickly expunged all references to the CCP’s bloody past from the internet. 

Consequently, most young Chinese have little knowledge of past events. According to Australian journalist Louis Lim, when she took the iconic tank man photo to four top Chinese universities in Beijing and asked roughly 100 Chinese students what it was, only 15 of them could recognize it had something to do with the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen. It’s an astonishing example of the effectiveness of the CCP’s censorship.

Young Chinese grew up in a China that has been a rising world power with signs of prosperity and modernity everywhere. With neither memorials nor historical knowledge, they did not see the CCP as an evildoer. Instead, many of them were more nationalistic than previous generations. They believed in the CCP’s lies that any criticism of the CCP is a smear campaign by hostile foreign forces and that Western-style democracy won’t work in China. They accepted at face value the “China dream” that President Xi Jinping promised — that only Xi would return China to its previous power and prestige and guarantee the Chinese people prosperity and security.

The CCP’s indoctrination of Chinese youths has been so successful that some Chinese students brought their distorted beliefs and blind faith in the CCP to foreign campuses. Rather than taking advantage of the political freedom to discover the truth, they defended the CCP by protesting against speeches and viewpoints that contradicted the CCP’s propaganda. For instance, in 2019, some mainland Chinese students on U.S. college campuses threatened their fellow Hong Kong students who publicly supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. 

Rude Awakening

Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Chinese government’s draconian responses have brought a rude awakening for many young Chinese. According to a report by The Washington Post, school administrators enforced Covid restrictions, including “confining students to their dorms for weeks, requiring appointments to use shared bathrooms and barring them from showering.” And students were banned from “leaving campus or even going to the hospital. Cafeteria options had become limited, including for minority students with dietary restrictions, and food deliveries were blocked.”  

Naturally, students were upset that they had been forced to spend the best years of their lives on prison-like college campuses, enduring with little dignity the kind of hardship they had never experienced before. Chinese youth also feel growing anxiety about their economic future. Due to frequent and prolonged lockdowns and Xi’s war on private businesses, China’s economic growth has slowed significantly in the last three years. The 9 million college graduates of the class of 2021 reportedly had to compete against the still-unemployed of the class of 2020 for limited job opportunities because many companies either imposed a hiring freeze or went out of business altogether. The official unemployment rate for young Chinese aged 16 to 24 has reached almost 18 percent this year. Since Beijing tends to underreport bad news, the youth unemployment rate is likely much higher, which means the employment outlook for the class of 2022 will be even worse. 

‘Lying Flat’ Movement to Do Little

Out of frustration and feeling hopeless for their future, some disheartened Chinese youths invented the “lying flat” movement, opting out of “getting married, having children, purchasing a home or car, and joining the corporate money-making machine,” as Voice of America described it. Instead, they advocated for desiring little and doing just enough to get by.

The movement has become so popular among younger Chinese that a poll found about 74 percent of Chinese youth either strongly agree or somewhat agree with the “lying flat” approach. But the movement contradicts Xi’s call for Chinese citizens to endure a “great struggle” as the economy falters. Sensing the CCP is losing the next generation, the state-run Xinhua news agency claimed in an editorial that “lying flat is shameful. Only hard work brings happiness.” Others criticized the younger generation for being too “self-centered” and “too sensitive to pressures.”

Yet Youth Lead Protests

But these supposedly “weak” and self-centered youths stood up to the CCP’s Covid tyranny long before any other segments of the population. In May this year, students at Peking University in Beijing, one of the most prestigious colleges in China, protested their school’s Covid measures. They tore down metal barriers that kept them confined in their dorms. Students in other elite universities, such as Nankai University in Tianjin and East China Normal University in Shanghai, soon staged protests, demanding school administrations end those ridiculous restrictions on access to showers and toilets. Although these protests were small-scale and short-lived, they took place several months before the general public finally found the courage to stage their demonstrations last week. 

China’s young protesters first held sheets of white paper as a symbol of silent protest of the CCP’s censorship, hence giving the movement its nickname, “White Paper Revolution.” While the general public demanded relief from the Chinese government’s draconian Covid policy and its enforcement, students at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, Xi’s alma mater, chanted “democracy and rule of law. Expression of freedom.” Chinese students overseas, from Australia to Europe and the United States, staged demonstrations either on college campuses or in front of Chinese embassies and consulates, expressing solidarity with their compatriots at home, demanding Xi step down and release any protesters who were already arrested. 

Standing up to the Chinese government carries tremendous personal risks. Chinese police reportedly have already deployed all the surveillance tools at their disposal, including randomly stopping people on the street and scanning their cell phones to review location data and social media posts to track down and reprimand protesters. Chinese students are not safe from the CCP’s long arm. According to The Wall Street Journal, “numerous studies have documented how Beijing’s intelligence gathering and influence efforts followed them abroad.”

CCP Sees the Risk

Among all protesters, the CCP is probably most concerned about college students. More than 30 years ago, college students led the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, won broad public support, and put the CCP’s one-party rule in jeopardy for the very first time. Although the CCP survived the 1989 movement after it ruthlessly cracked down on protesters, the international community condemned the party’s brutality and imposed economic sanctions on China. The financial challenges compelled the CCP leaders to open up China’s market more than they wanted to and make significant economic concessions to win back foreign investments.

Probably keeping that historical lesson in mind, the CCP has ordered Chinese universities to send their students home to prevent current student protests from gaining momentum and endangering the party’s rule once again. But the party’s action may have already been too late. Even if Xi survives the current crisis, his bad policies have already turned some of the most indoctrinated Chinese youth into the new generation of pro-democracy activists. 

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