Li Yuan on China’s Crisis of Confidence

Ms. Li Yuan is a journalist and reporter who writes the New New World column for The New York Times, which focuses on the intersection of technology, business, and politics in China and across Asia. Based in New York, Ms. Yuan has written about China's censorship system, the emerging technology cold war between the United States and China, China's artificial intelligence ambitions and its emerging #MeToo movement. She joined The Times in May 2018. Before that, she worked for The Wall Street Journal in New York, Beijing, and Hong Kong as a reporter and an editor for 14 years, covering the early days of the mobile internet, the launch of the iPhone and China's rise as a technology power.
Yui Kurosawa '26 interviewed Ms. Li Yuan on March 18, 2024.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Ms. Li Yuan.

What are the indications that China is going through a crisis of confidence? What triggered this crisis? 

I monitor the buzzwords on the Chinese internet. The public can’t talk about many things in China; for example, economists can’t speak about how bad the economy is. On the Chinese internet, some new words started appearing since the pandemic. One is “run,” meaning to run away from China; people believe in the “run philosophy.” The other is “the last generation.” Young people would say, “We’re the last generation; we won’t have children. In this way, the government’s bullying will stop with us and here, and no future generations will come.” Moreover, young people lost hope of finding good jobs; the youth unemployment rate is very high. They have no hope of moving upward socially and economically. They think, “Why bother?” or “Just lie flat.” These types of expressions reveal how people have lost their optimism. When my generation was growing up, we always believed tomorrow would be better than today, and next year would be better than this year. If we worked hard, we would be able to succeed. In the early 2010s, the buzzword was “the Chinese dream.” It was very similar to the American dream: As long as you worked hard, you could achieve success—an apartment, a car, and college education for your kids. There was social mobility. Those were the things people believed in. 

When the zero-COVID policy ended in December 2022, for a couple of months, people expected the economy to rebound. But it didn’t. Housing prices have been coming down, and nearly 60% of Chinese households’ assets are in housing. People no longer believe next year will be better than this year. The Shanghai lockdown affected 26 million people and left a very deep psychological impact on the Chinese public, especially the better-educated and better-off middle class. Even very wealthy Shanghai residents had difficulty getting food. People began to doubt: What’s the point of making money? What’s the point of working hard if you have no control over your life? You can’t even go out to shop for groceries. When you’re sick, you don’t even know if you can go to the hospital. People felt they lost complete control over their lives; many became disillusioned. I talked to so many people from Shanghai and nearly everyone said they wanted to leave China. 

I too was depressed during the Shanghai lockdown. Every day when I looked at my phone, I saw all the posts the Shanghai residents shared. I just cried and cried. Even now, when I say the words “Shanghai lockdown,” my heart aches. It has become a collective trauma from which it will take years to heal—if that is possible at all. 

In your recent article, “A Window into the Chinese Government Has Now Slammed Shut,” you discuss the ramifications of China ending its 30-year-long tradition of hosting a premier annual news conference where leaders take questions from journalists. Is this an aberration, or a part of a larger trend of declining transparency? What are the long-term consequences?

The premier’s annual press conference following the parliamentary sessions was the only opportunity for foreign correspondents to ask questions to a top Chinese leader. Now that’s gone. Even though some news organizations refused to participate in asking questions because those questions had to be screened, the press conference was an interesting political theater and you could still get some information out of it. For example, former Premier Li Keqiang famously mentioned at the 2020 press conference that 600 million Chinese make a monthly salary of around 1000 yuan. It was a shock to many people, including me, because the Chinese government didn’t share numbers like this in the past. He shared that number because Xi Jinping liked talking about how successful China’s anti-poverty campaign was, but many people were still living in poverty or near poverty. Li shared that number with the world because he had tensions with Xi. 

This is the end of something much bigger. The Chinese government stopped sharing a lot of economic information and numbers. For example, last August when the youth unemployment rate became very high, over 21%, the government stopped releasing the number. Earlier this year, they resumed releasing the unemployment rate but used a different definition – and that’s data manipulation. Many local governments also hide their numbers and no longer release many numbers. China is becoming a black box; it’s very difficult to understand what’s really going on inside. 

Another tool journalists used a lot was the China Judgements Online website to search court verdicts and do investigative work to understand what was happening in China. That’s no longer accessible. There’s another website CNKI that listed academic works and it is also gone. So many things are no longer available. The transparent channel was never that transparent to begin with, but now it’s just dark and more difficult to read. 

China is the world’s second largest economy. But if it’s a black box, how can foreign investors make decisions? They need to understand what’s really going on, but nobody knows exactly. Everybody is just guessing and trying to read the tea leaves. That’s very dangerous. China experienced disasters in the past because of a lack of information, like the Great Leap Forward when China wanted to become industrialized fast. One number they used was steel production to compare it to the U.S. It was a crazy period when officials reported exaggerated harvest numbers while people starved. The government didn’t allow villages to share information with neighboring ones, let alone with the media. That lack of information contributed to the disaster where tens of millions died from bad policies. 

The U.S. House of Representatives has recently passed a bill forcing the Chinese Communist Party to sell TikTok. How will this impact U.S.-China relations? How might this “ban” play inside China? 

I’m not sure how it might affect US-China relations because the relations have been pretty poor already. The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the US the other day for protectionism, but the U.S. can turn around and point to even more things China has done. Just think about it - no major U.S. internet company has a presence in China. They’re all banned - Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, everything. I used to joke that Airbnb was the biggest US online internet company in China. But it also withdrew from the Chinese market in 2022. There’s nothing. Wikipedia is even banned in China. China built its own parallel internet world. For China to criticize the US for banning TikTok, China has no moral high ground given its own track record. But at the same time, the Chinese government can use this ban to play to the domestic audience - that the US isn’t as free a country as you think. Of course, this became ammunition for propaganda. 

I don’t think it will have the same type of impact as the Huawei ban. Technologically and strategically, Huawei is a much more important company than TikTok. As much as many American young people like TikTok, it’s not that important strategically. But at the same time, I have to say on the record that I do believe TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have a lot of explaining to do in order to be more transparent about their relationship with the Chinese government. 

While China’s economic situation seems bleak with record-high youth unemployment, a housing slump, and deflation, are there any reasons we should remain optimistic? 

To many, it may seem like most Chinese are indoctrinated, brainwashed, and believe whatever the government tells them. But that’s not the case. During the pandemic, with the zero COVID policy, and during the economic slump of the past few years, many Chinese were awakened and spoke out. They became so disillusioned, and as a result, we saw the white paper protests where thousands took to the streets. Some paid a huge price. While China has very little civil society—lawyers, journalists and others—there were still people who stood up to this government. Many went to jail, and the sentencing became worse and worse. As I wrote, the real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years for writing one article. Legal activist Xu Zhiyong is serving 14 years in jail. There are so many others. For decades, there were people who stood up and paid huge prices. 

People ask what kind of articles I like to write. Some would think that I like to write articles that reflect the negative sides of China, assuming that I’m pessimistic about China. But, actually, I like writing about how inspiring Chinese people are. I wrote a column about the Clubhouse app when it wasn’t blocked for a few weeks during the pandemic. Many Chinese flocked there and were so articulate when expressing themselves in audio rooms, lining up for hours to speak briefly. They even said let nationalistic “Little Pinks” talk, too, for freedom of expression. It was inspiring. I like to write articles like this because I want the world to see the humanity of Chinese people. They are not just brainwashed people following the government blindly. There are brave people with independent minds. That’s the bright side that I want to highlight. 

What is the most common misperception of China in the West today? What is behind such misperception? 

There’s a misperception that the Chinese government is really strategic. The Chinese government isn’t necessarily strategic, it simply has the freedom to do whatever it wants – there’s no checks and balances in China – which is why it can build high-speed railways and make way for expensive projects. 

Another misperception is that the U.S. continues to see China as a competitor. It’s true in many aspects. But the Chinese economy is going to keep slumping, and lots of Chinese professionals might want to migrate from China. China’s no longer the place to do business. So the U.S. shouldn’t make policies based on blown-up fear. 

Yui Kurosawa '26Student Journalist

China News Service, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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