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NPR's John Ruwitch reflects on the changing mood in China

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Few things matter more to the future of this country than keeping track of its big global rival, China. With that in mind, we hear stories of China all this week, stories of a country that once seemed to be on the rise. How's it feel now? NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch has been asking, and he has perspective because he has covered the country for decades. He's in Beijing right now. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What feels different than what you've experienced in the past?

RUWITCH: Well, a lot. I first came to China in the mid-'90s and then came back in 2001 as a reporter and watched a country on a pretty amazing trajectory over that time. Economically, socially - the changes have been profound. But for a lot of that time, there's been a throughline. There's been this very forward-looking, positive energy about and confidence in the future. But over the past year, year and a half or so of being here in China, it just feels like that's shifting.

INSKEEP: Shifting to what?

RUWITCH: Well, that sort of pervasive optimism has really faded. There's a confluence of factors from domestic politics to international frictions, structural and policy-driven economic changes that have slowed the economy. They've really changed the vibe here. And for a lot of people, that inevitable better future isn't so inevitable anymore, and the aspirations of many have been curtailed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: On the northern edge of the Chinese city of Xi’an, a 45-year-old man named Jiang tells a typical story.

JIANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: He left his home village, not far from here, at the age of 18, to work in a factory town in southern China.

JIANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Five years ago, he moved again to Xi'an and started a secondhand kitchen appliance business. There are refrigerators, stoves, blenders. He says, like others, he had big dreams, and opportunities were there for the taking.

JIANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: But it's been a tough road. And conditions now, with the economy on its heels, are actually worse, he says, than during the pandemic.

JIANG: (Through interpreter) The economy is rather dead these days. For example, people who might want to open a store won't dare to do it now, and those who run a small business aren't expanding.

RUWITCH: Government policies have not sparked the recovery that one might have come to expect in years past, when economic growth topped the list of priorities. And that's dented Jiang's ambitions for upward mobility. Ambitions that multiplied across hundreds of millions of people fueled China's economic rise.

JIANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: His aspirations for a better life, he says, have faded. In Beijing, Joerg Wuttke has had a front-row seat to China's spectacular rise and the ambition that's fueled it. He's been here for most of the past four decades, doing business and lobbying for European firms as head of the European Chamber of Commerce for much of that time.

JOERG WUTTKE: Well, the first time I came to China in summer '82, and people were really poor, and they had nothing to lose.

RUWITCH: Back then, he says, people used to pay to have their pictures taken next to cars because there were so few of them. Now there are more cars in China than people in the U.S. I first met Joerg a little over 20 years ago, when our offices were in the same building. The country had just joined the World Trade Organization.

WUTTKE: It was China which actually was very open and could sort of give us some indications of where we're heading, you know, to a more open liberal society. Globalization would be coming into town.

RUWITCH: Now, he says, the Communist Party has actually become more dominant across society than he thinks it was even 40 years ago, before reform and opening really started to take off.

WUTTKE: For Xi Jinping, it's clear - ideology trumps the economy.

RUWITCH: That's muddied the waters for businesses.

WUTTKE: It is far more complex in order to actually steer a company in the business in China than it was over the last 20, 30 years.

RUWITCH: Geopolitics linked to domestic politics, both here and abroad, is a driving factor. Foreign direct investment is down. Confidence is low. And as is the case for Jiang, the appliance salesman in Xi'an, the future is less certain than it always seemed to be. Wuttke is moving on in the coming months. He says it's got nothing to do with current affairs, but China is in uncharted waters. And for him, that became crystal clear last year when the government hewed for too long to an unbending and unforgiving zero-COVID policy. In Shanghai, that policy turned a high school teacher into an exiled dissident.

HUANG YICHENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Huang Yicheng says as someone who grew up in China, human rights was not something he spent much time thinking about.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) If I could live normally - go to work, have some fun, be with my family, make some money, eat - then it'd all be fine.

RUWITCH: But then in the spring of 2022, the Shanghai government ordered its 26 million residents to stay home to stop the spread of COVID. A lockdown that was supposed to last about a week would stretch for two long months.

HUANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Huang felt like he was on an animal farm. It was terrifying, and it showed what the government was capable of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting in Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Later that year, when protests erupted in Shanghai and elsewhere against the draconian COVID policies, Huang got involved.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) I woke up that day, and it was the afternoon already, so I took the subway over.

RUWITCH: Over to where a crowd had gathered at an intersection. He mostly hung back. But when police cleared protesters that night, he was grabbed, roughed up and briefly detained. Months later, after lying low, he fled to Germany.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) I had never really thought of leaving. Really. I thought, if this country's not good, you don't necessarily need to leave it. You can stay and do small things to make change.

RUWITCH: Instead, the pandemic changed him. Back in Xi'an, we checked in on a man who NPR talked to a year ago. At the time, Lee Shin was squatting in an unfinished apartment that he had bought nine years earlier. It was on the 28th floor.

LEE SHIN: (Through interpreter) We used a tank gas stove, and we had to fetch bottles of water from downstairs.

RUWITCH: Construction had stopped after the property developer allegedly lost money in other investments, but this year, the building was finally completed.

LEE: (Through interpreter) So when we got the key and opened the door, there was no feeling of excitement. When we went in, we just wanted to cry.

RUWITCH: Their life plans for an early wedding, for kids were set back by years. But now in their new home, surely things were looking up, weren't they? Lee betrays little emotion.

LEE: (Through interpreter) I don't have any aspirations, and I don't think I want to have any aspirations anymore.

RUWITCH: He says that's because they've never panned out for him.

INSKEEP: John Ruwitch in Beijing. And, John, what do stories like that tell you?

RUWITCH: Well, look, these are just vignettes of four people. This is a huge and diverse country of 1.4 billion people. And if my many years of covering China have taught me anything, it's that making predictions or sweeping guesses about what these kinds of things mean and what's going to happen here is fraught business. But this shift in zeitgeist, perhaps, is worth paying attention to.

INSKEEP: Meaning a shift from optimism to pessimism about what's coming next.

RUWITCH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing, beginning this week's China series on NPR. (Inaudible) on the radio and at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.