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Chinese kids are losing faith in Xi Jinping

Disaffected youth in Beijing. Guang Niu/Getty

Lu Xun, a giant of modern Chinese literature, wrote a short story in 1919 “about a down-on-his-luck Confucian scholar named Kong Yiji”, says Michael Schuman in The Atlantic. Kong fails the imperial civil service exams but is unwilling to get a regular job, so he “sinks into poverty”. The other villagers can barely understand his elaborate, classical diction; they taunt him and eventually break his legs for stealing. At the story’s end, Kong drags himself out of a tavern with his hands, “never to be seen again”. Today, China’s educated youth “have found a special affinity” for the character. One in five of them are unemployed, the highest level on record.

The “go-go” growth of China’s reform era has given way to a spluttering economy, a bout of harsh zero-Covid controls, and Xi Jinping’s policy of “ideological and social conformity”. Since 2014, the proportion of Chinese adults starting new businesses has fallen from 15.5% to 6%; the number of babies in the country has plunged by almost half in six years; and ten times more citizens are seeking asylum overseas than a decade ago. All this speaks to how the “boundless optimism” of the recent past has been replaced with a “mood of disenchantment”. One online essay, quickly scrubbed from the internet, laid the blame at Xi’s door. “Rather than make Kong Yiji take off his scholar’s gown,” it read, “how about stripping the Emperor of his new clothes?”