It’s been a year of overwhelming change for China, and the fundamental shift in the relationship among the country’s government, businesses and citizens is a long way from complete.
President Xi Jinping’s push for “common prosperity” — aimed at narrowing the nation’s persistent wealth gap — underpins moves to limit the power of China’s technology giants, to cool ever-rising house prices, to encourage philanthropy and to embrace clean energy. The drive has dovetailed with a clampdown on the entertainment industry that has targeted livestreamers and actors over tax evasion, and placed “improper” celebrity culture under scrutiny.
The changes look set to last. A landmark historical resolution published in November — only the third of its sort in the Chinese Communist Party’s history — puts common prosperity at the heart of the government’s aims. The doctrine also sets up Xi, who is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term at next year’s party congress, to potentially rule China for life.
While the average age of the party’s Central Committee is about 60, and the president himself is 68, the shifts being implemented now will most profoundly affect the lives of younger Chinese people. We spoke to up-and-coming voices in some key areas of the economy about their outlook for the country.
The realities of life in China today are reflected in more than just their words. Controls on free speech have tightened under Xi’s leadership, and some interviewees sidestepped more politically sensitive questions. Their comments are broadly optimistic, but many Chinese people feel much less upbeat about the future. Our group also skews male. That’s not by design, but it is a reminder of the staggering dominance of men in China’s power structures.
Nonetheless, these interviews offer a snapshot of where the country stands and where it’s heading.
“The next era is artificial intelligence and automation replacing people’s work — technological unemployment. Globalisation also means some jobs will go to the overseas market,” Ren said. “We will need government and society to carry out social distribution, so that more people can smoothly transition during this technological transformation.” Ren argues that China’s socialist values will allow it to better adapt to the future compared with places like the U.S., which will struggle with social and ideological division. The Chinese system — which combines traditional values such as altruism and a sense of community with elements of socialism and a market economy — will offer a political model that is a major contribution to humanity, he added.
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Reintroducing common prosperity heralds a shift in the relationships between different social groups, Ren Yi said. Photographer: Yan Cong/Bloomberg
Ren said he and those around him are paying more attention to philanthropy and making donations, as common prosperity urges members of society to “embrace each other.” Reintroducing common prosperity is a “significant event” that heralds a shift in the relationships between different social classes and groups, and Ren expects the idea to be further elevated during next year’s national party congress.
Common prosperity is not just an administrative measure, it’s a value, according to Ren. Conspicuous consumption, “while certainly not barred, will be discouraged and looked down upon by society.”
Tech giants around the world are becoming so powerful that they’re “superseding nation states,” according to Suji Yan, and the Chinese regulatory crackdown is Beijing’s way of reasserting government control.
As a believer in a “decentralized digital world” and open-source systems, Yan argues that facilitating heavy government regulation and supporting tech companies’ striving for greater power than whole countries are both “super bad.” He is “trying to think about a better alternative.”
According to Yan, the biggest tech companies expect every aspect of daily life to become increasingly digital — from communication and currency to voting and governance. China’s common prosperity drive is designed to “pull money out of the pockets of tech giants,” Yan said, and he expected to see similar crackdowns in Western countries in the next three to five years.
He said the Chinese legal system is robust, but laws were only really enforced once a company or individual is found to be “problematic” and they were accused of having “violated this and that” — an approach he describes as “quite controversial.”
He sees a danger of the world becoming less connected over the next 10 years, as Covid-19 affects our ability to communicate and to physically interact. That could mean sovereign countries becoming more “stand-alone,” with few international businesses and little communication.
“We’re definitely citizens of a certain state,” he said, “but can we be native digital citizens and share a larger dream with the rest of the world?”
In 10 years, Lillian Li said the “more symbiotic relationship of tech firms with the government” kick-started by the common prosperity drive will still be happening.
She sees common prosperity as “a very lofty term for what I think is actually quite a common concept” — that everyone should have access to the same living standard. “In that way, it’s not too different to what is commonplace in Europe.”
That said, “whenever there is a ‘societal problem’ in Europe or the U.S., I think people’s first reaction is to call on market forces to correct it,” according to Li. In China, meanwhile, “the default is people want government intervention.”
In Li’s view, the growing middle class is “great news” for international companies. “When you look at reports, the biggest market for luxury right now in the world is third- or fourth-tier cities in China,” she said. “These are the rising beneficiaries of common prosperity.”
And she said that foreign investors are on equal footing with local Chinese investors, and sometimes even have an advantage.
Makers of software that can be linked to national security “will not be taking money from foreign investors, as a point of national interest. But let’s be honest, that is exactly the same case for any U.S. company or European company as well. For almost every other category, the founder is not sitting there being, “Is this a foreign investor? Is that a domestic investor? Where’s the money coming from?”
“China has generally positioned itself as being open and wanting to engage,” Li said. “It might not always remain on message all the time, but I do believe, when you look at the policies, that is actually what they intend to do.”
She said that on the ground in China, “it’s very energising to deal with people who do have a true sense of optimism about the future.”
China’s shift to greener energy will benefit different parts of the country unevenly, according to Li Shuo, and resolving these inequities is a “very big challenge” for the government as it pursues common prosperity.
It’s “unavoidable that some groups may face more challenging economic prospects” than others, Li points out. Places like the electric-vehicle hub Shenzhen will benefit disproportionately, he said, while areas that rely on traditional industries — such as the coal-belt province of Shanxi — will have to undergo economic restructuring.
Over the next 10 years, Li expects emerging business models to improve people’s quality of life as well as helping China to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060. He mentioned the bike-sharing industry as a relatively recent example.
And while many younger Chinese people today have relatives who have worked in heavy industry, he expects that to become uncommon within a decade. “The proportion of these industries in China’s economy will certainly decline further,” he said.
Reaching zero-carbon status within a few decades would be almost like “science fiction” for many developed countries, Li said. If there’s one country with the resolve to achieve it, “past history tells us it’s China,” he argued, pointing to the speed of economic development in recent decades. The country’s environmental improvement will be driven by internal forces, he said, as external obligations wane in the face of tensions with the West.
In a decade, China will be distinct from other developed economies in many ways, Feng argued. Those include having a more balanced relationship between the public and private sector, rather than relying on a very dominant private sector as many Western countries do.
The Chinese government sees the state-owned sector as being able to create an economic buffer in a way that private enterprises cannot, especially in times of crisis. In situations like the pandemic, China can mobilize the public sector, while the private economy is only focused on cutting headcount and reacting to profit, Feng said.
The relationship between urban and rural China will become more balanced, Feng said, and the line between the two will blur. Revitalising the countryside is a high priority for the party, he said: “China realizes that in order to continue the current rate of growth, it has to leverage the rural population that was not a major force of consumption before.”
Younger people are also more confident, having grown up while China is racing towards becoming the world’s largest economy and the U.S. is declining, Feng said.
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“China’s younger generation will turn even more inward toward understanding Chinese culture,” Feng Chucheng said. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
“A lot of China’s younger generation will turn even more inward toward understanding Chinese culture, revitalising Chinese culture,” he said, “rather than worshipping American and imported Western cultures.”
It would be “terrible” if in 10 years, people couldn’t see opportunities to improve their livelihoods even if they work hard, Feng said. For China’s younger generations now, it’s becoming more difficult to get rich, he said: Those who already achieved wealth have blocked the way and are using their money to guarantee a good future for their children.
Beijing will need to find a balance between “socialist core values,” he argued, and people’s natural desire for materialistic goods. He thinks the state will likely encourage people to focus more on development of the mind rather than superficial or meaningless admiration, as evidenced by the recent crackdown on idol culture.
Xin expects technological innovation in the consumer space to develop fast in China over the next 10 years, and for more ideas like livestreaming to emerge that developed nations can learn from.
He said livestreaming changed his life after growing up in rural poverty as the son of a farmer. In his view, common prosperity means influencers should reach out to people who have good ideas and help them to join the e-commerce wave. “I hope more people will enter the industry,” Xin said.
He is investing in a team of 50 teachers with the aim of opening a livestreaming school for between 50 000 and 100 000 students a year, potentially in the northern city of Dalian. “I will assess how big the demand is from the society,” he said. “If it’s huge, I will work harder to achieve this.”
He wants to empower more people, including farmers, to build their businesses online.
Xin said he has helped farmers to sell millions of duck eggs through his livestreaming shows — a process which has made him very little money.
“The farmers really don’t know much about packaging, marketing or logistics. So I just painstakingly taught them over and over again, but I couldn’t teach many people by myself,” he said.
“Then in the first half of 2020, I decided that I wanted to open a school to share our ideas, so that they can have more opportunities.”
One downside of the livestreaming industry is that “it has made many people overly rich and they don’t think about how to make other people rich too or how to share with others,” he said. Top livestreamers including Viya have recently been fined millions of dollars for tax evasion.
The livestreaming industry “is supposed to make more underprivileged people get rich,” Xin said.
Going forward, he expects the government to more heavily regulate live e-commerce, which currently lacks clear rules.
“Common prosperity is an ancient Chinese dream,” Wang Yiwei said. “Social justice, great harmony, that’s traditional Chinese culture.” If some people are too rich or too poor, “that’s revolution. Chinese history told us,” he said, adding that Confucius said people shouldn’t fear scarcity, but rather uneven distribution.
Still, pursuing common prosperity isn’t unique to China or an alternative to Western models, Wang said. In his view, it’s also a global phenomenon.
Common prosperity is a drive to be “clean, lean and green,” Wang said. Now that China is the world’s market and not its factory, more growth will come from innovation, design and knowledge-intensive work than from capital-intensive projects.
In Wang’s view, people’s thinking around the definition of “advanced” has changed: The right measure is whether something is suitable or not. He cites “whole-process democracy” — a controversial concept — as an example.
“We will not copy any model from the Soviet Union or the U.S.,” Wang said. “If you just copy, no one will succeed.”
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