Xi Faces More Skepticism Within China as Global Problems Mount.

As Xi Jinping prepares to begin his second decade as China’s president, he’s facing a new phenomenon: A much more skeptical public.
The abrupt end to some of the world’s strictest Covid controls following rare protests against Xi and the Communist Party in late November led to a wave of sickness and death across the world’s second-biggest economy, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums. Although Chinese officials declared a “decisive victory” over the virus last month for the second time, the long-term political consequences for Xi remain unclear.
The credibility deficit for Xi is particularly evident in Shanghai, a financial and trade hub that has long served as China’s window on the world. Interviews with more than a dozen people there in recent weeks showed a deep lack of trust about the path forward under Xi and his new right-hand man Li Qiang, who was rewarded with a promotion to premier after effectively locking people in their homes for two months last year.
“If someone hurts you, then it’ll take a long time to rebuild trust,” said Lillian, a 43-year-old Shanghai native, who asked that she only be identified by her first name to speak freely in China.
Xi will have a chance to start restoring confidence this weekend, when China’s legislature — the National People’s Congress — meets in Beijing for its annual session. The event will give the public a chance to hear from Li and other top officials on plans to revive an economy growing near the slowest pace in decades, as well as the direction of foreign policy as US-China tensions surge over Russia, Taiwan and export controls on advanced technology.
For the world, the messages presented will show the extent to which China’s mounting economic troubles at home will affect its policies toward global issues like Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has stoked inflation and increased suspicion among US allies of Beijing’s intentions toward Taiwan. Xi’s expressed desire to push for peace has been met with incredulity in the US, which has repeatedly warned that China may help Russia to prolong the conflict.
While quantifying the level of dissatisfaction is always difficult at best in China, in recent months citizens have become bolder in pushing back against the government. High-profile demonstrations have prompted the government to shift course on a range of policies apart from Covid, including firework bans, stalled real estate projects and reduced medical benefits for pensioners. 
Washington-based Freedom House, which last year began collecting data for its China Dissent Monitor, documented protests in nearly all corners of the nation in the final three months of 2022. Group demonstrations were most prevalent in the southwest province of Sichuan, the economic powerhouse of Guangdong and Shandong further up the eastern coastline toward Beijing, showing discontent over a wide geographic area.
Underlying the restlessness are increased questions about Xi’s ability to fulfill the social contract that underpins the Communist Party’s legitimacy: Accept one-party rule in return for competent governance that keeps people safe and delivers economic prosperity. 
“If you establish a causality, then you have to continue to deliver,” Ding Yuan, vice president and dean of the prestigious Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School, said of the social contract in China. “In that sense, they cannot escape from that.” 
What’s more, he said, the government has no easy fixes for structural economic issues like an aging population, the need to strengthen the social safety system and an overdependence on land sales for local governments to raise cash to deliver essential services.
“These issues will pull down the economy and ultimately make the people less happy,” Ding said. 
In Shanghai, people like Lillian remain traumatized by last year’s lockdown, when many residents struggled to put even basic foodstuffs on the table. Sipping on a red bean and coconut cocktail in the former French Concession, she recalls the anger, disappointment and fear that marked 2022 — and has doubts she’ll ever be able to trust the Communist Party again without a complete overhaul of the organization. 
A revival in the economy “would feel like life is getting back on the normal track,” she said. “It won’t be enough to make me happy, but it would be a first step.”
Many foreigners just got up and left. A recent position paper by the European Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai cited estimates that 25% of German residents in the city left after the 2022 lockdown, while the number of French and Italian citizens who were registered with their governments each fell by 20%.
“Before it was a super attractive place and now actually nobody wants to go back because people feel not sure what will happen,” Bettina Schoen-Behanzin, chair of the Shanghai chapter of the EU Chamber of Commerce, told reporters in the city earlier in February. 
Such sentiment isn’t uniform throughout the country. A businessperson in their 30s said residents who traveled to his hometown in northern China over Lunar New Year in mid-January said villagers still had many nice things to say about Xi, pointing to his success in stamping out corruption and eliminating a serious gang problem in the area. 
Yet for folks now living in Shanghai like Li, a 29-year-old advertising industry executive, Xi has more work to do to win back trust. Born in northwestern China but now holding a US passport, she brought candles in November to the sight of a memorial to honor victims of a fire in Xinjiang that kicked off wider demonstrations against Xi’s Covid Zero policies. 
Tucking into an avocado toast three months later in a crowded street-side café in the same area, she said she wanted to see the government give more money to small businesses to revive the economy, similar to what the US did in the wake of the pandemic. Barring that, she said she’d also settle for any policy that was “authentic and genuine.” 
“I kind of lost all faith,” Li said. “I don’t think Xi Jinping or any person underneath is going to make a dent.”

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