Fissures in the Facade

Alessandro Rizzi, “Man in Xidan Shopping District,” Getty Images (Source)

There are many aspects of Chinese society that I understand poorly. For example: the peasantry. I know the Chinese peasantry—as opposed to their close kin, the migrant workers—entirely in the abstract. I have spent no time in rural Chinese villages. I have watched documentaries about the people who live there, poured over statistical summaries, perused long-read investigative pieces, and even read entire books about these places. But I know a lot less about that world than say the 500 million or so Chinese that who actually live in it.[1]  All of my knowledge of that world comes second hand.

The China I know most intimately is the China of a different strata. This is the China of the strivers and the climbers, the China of the people who flock to Beijing or Shenzhen determined to build their own empire—and the China of the people who will settle for something far less than that a year or two in. This is the China of the the respectable classes: the students, the intellectuals, the artists, the lawyers, the scientists, the salesmen, the entrepreneurs, the investors, the civil servants, and the party hacks. China’s urban middle class, China’s urban upper class, and China’s multi-multi-millionaries. For the young this is the China of sang tea and the 2nd dimension; for the old this is the China of soup-for-the-soul and masculinity boot camps (or for a different sort of old, this the China that produces an endless stream of satirical attacks on the soup-for-the-soulers and countless sniffs about the “low suzhi” of modern China).

A recent news item captures the anxieties of this wide swathe of people in a way that most outside coverage of China does not.

Here is the story as reported by the New York Times:

On the first anniversary of her arrest in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, issued an open letter describing how she experienced fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment and acceptance of the unknown.

She wrote at length about the support she received from her colleagues, about friendly people at a courthouse in Vancouver and about “numerous” Chinese online users who expressed their trust. Her letter, posted on Monday, was not well received on the Chinese internet, where Ms. Meng is known — in a term meant to be endearing — as “princess” because she is a daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei.

n the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, many users posted the numbers 985, 996, 251 and 404 in the comment section below her letter. They were slyly referring to a former Huawei employee who graduated from one of the country’s top universities in a program code-named 985, worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week and was jailed for 251 days after he demanded severance pay when his contract wasn’t renewed.

His story went viral in China, generating angry responses online. That resulted in 404 error messages as articles and comments were deleted, a sign of China’s censors at work.

The former employee, Li Hongyuan, was eventually released from jail with no charges and received $15,000 in government compensation last week. He shared his story online last week, and that was when the hit to Huawei’s reputation began….

“One enjoyed a sunny Canadian mansion while the other enjoyed the cold and damp detention cell in Shenzhen,” Jiang Feng, a psychologist, commented on the Quora-like question-and-answer site Zhihu….

The anger on social media was also indicative of new insecurity among members of China’s middle class, who have never experienced an economic downturn and have always thought they had more protections than lower-paid migrant workers. People said they could see themselves in Mr. Li.

“Many middle-class Chinese used to believe that if they went to good schools, worked hard and cared little about the current affairs they would be able to realize their Chinese dreams,” a blogger wrote on Weibo. “Now their dreams are in tatters.”

Mr. Li, a Huawei employee for 12 years, negotiated a $48,000 severance package in March 2018, according to interviews he gave to Chinese media outlets. But he didn’t get an end-of-the-year bonus that he said had been promised to him. He sued Huawei in November last year.

A month later, he was detained in Shenzhen and accused of leaking commercial secrets. He was officially arrested in January on an extortion accusation. But he was released in August with no charges. He did not respond to interview requests…..

In a sign that many middle-class professionals are worried that what happened to Mr. Li could happen to them, online users circulated articles about jail life, especially in the Longgang detention center in Shenzhen, where Mr. Li spent more than eight months. Huawei is based in Shenzhen’s Longgang district.

Some online users are circulating a three-part blog post by a programmer who spent over a year in the detention center for working on gaming and gambling software. Gambling is illegal in China. The blogger wrote in detail what it was like to live in a 355-square-foot cell with 55 people in tropical weather — what they ate, wore and did every day….

Many Chinese are especially outraged by the degree to which news coverage and online responses have been censored. They say they feel helpless because they can’t criticize the government. Now they feel they are also not able to criticize a giant corporation.

One of the Weibo posts of Ms. Meng’s letter received 1,400 comments. Many simply said 251, the number of days Mr. Li was detained. Fewer than 10 comments, sympathetic ones, are still visible to the public.

“A company that’s too big to criticize is even scarier than a company that’s too big to fail,” Nie Huihua, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing, told the news site Jiemian on Tuesday.

Jiemian’s interview with Mr. Li, published on Monday, was deleted.[1]

A bit more information from Quartz:

The episode comes during a particularly strained time in relations between Chinese tech workers and employers. The trade war with the US has led to a number of layoffs, and there are mounting grievances at the long hours of work in China’s tech sector. The online protest against the work hours is known as “996,” which refers to the 9 am to 9 pm, six-days-a-week work schedule that is common in Chinese tech companies. 

In response to Huawei’s charm offensive in support of Meng, Chinese users on social network Weibo have been posting under hashtags such as ”Huawei’s former employee” (link in Chinese). Many of the comments expressed sympathy for Li and accused Huawei of treating him poorly. Others posted the numbers “996” and “251,” referring to the number of days Li is said to have been detained. Other numbers cited by users are “985” and “404”, referring to Li’s graduation from one of China’s top 985 universities and the error message displayed when a website page has been deleted, hinting at Chinese censorship of the topic online. 

“We’ll never become Meng Wanzhou, but we could become the next Li Hongyuan,” read one comment (link in Chinese). “We firmly support the Canadian authorities to extradite the ‘princess’ to the US,” said another. Patriotism, a motivation often cited by Chinese consumers for buying Huawei phones, has not eased the online storm of criticism of the company. “I love China, but I don’t love Huawei,” wrote one social media user. Another said Huawei has been “presented as a chariot tied up with patriotism,” but the company has betrayed “business norms and restraints.” [3]

What these stories are really reporting on is a deeper social fissure in China. I believe it is one of the most important divides for understanding the strengths and weakness of the current regime. The same fissure was graphically illustrated to me by a political cartoon a friend in Beijing sent me to several years ago. Her intent was to show me what she thought about her place in China’s future. I have not been able to find the cartoon through Baidu searching but I can describe its basic content: a bullet train, rushing ahead at full speed, its flanks emblazoned with the word NATIONAL ECONOMY. Dragged behind the train is a man. He is holding on to the last car with by his fingertips. If he loosens his grip he will fly away and fall onto the tracks. On his shirt are the words MIDDLE CLASS.

The meaning is fairly obvious. In the space of two generations China’s professional classes went from nothing to a great deal of something. Publicly they attribute their success to talent and hard work. Privately they admit that they must share this credit with good luck.[4] But will the good luck hold? In a China dramatically dividing, a world cleft ever more clearly between haves and have-nots, will they be able to stay on the side of the haves? The problem is made all the more nerve-racking when they realize that this is not just their problem: it is their kid’s problem too. 

It is hard to ride the tiger; harder still to ride it while teaching your child how to hold the reins. This paranoia about the capabilities and prospects of the next generation casts an omnipresent gloom. It grips the hearts of parents from the lowest tier of the Chinese middle class all the way up to the families of billionaires. I know this through personal experience. I was disturbed by the first Chinese multi-millionaire who expressed this fear to me. “Why should he worry?” I wondered. Why should someone with all of this wealth be so stressed and worried about his children’s intellectual training? Why does he worry about them not having an education good enough for “the challenges of the future?” Surely, given the wealth they will inherit, they will be ok?

Surely so…. unless you are not so sure your children will be in a position to inherit anything.

I learned a lot about the way Chinese people—especially those born in the 60s, 70s,  and early 80s, who remember clearly what it means to live in want—think about their regime and its future on that day. The lesson has been taught to me a great many times since. I won’t delve into more stories here:  it is enough to say that the Chinese upper crust are not buying houses in Vancouver and Hokkaido and Honolulu simply because they expect a good return on their capital.

But what about the Chinese professional who doesn’t have the money to buy a plum house in Canberra? If my friend the Beijing multi-millionaire is antsy about his future, what about the millions of Chinese white-collar workers with no hope of earning even their first million?

Earlier this year I had a bar-side conversation with a very successful digital-security type, a specialist in Chinese cyber-ops. The discussion had turned to the success of Russian interference operations and the likelihood that these operations on the Russian style would soon be copied by security services across the world. “Well if that is the future,” said I, “when do we arm up ourselves? How long will we play only defense? What is to stop the United States from doing to the Chinese what we just saw the Russians do to us?”

My interlocutor argued against the proposal: the risks of trying to destabilize Chinese society outweighed the benefits. Besides, there were three very practical challenges that would make any interference campaign on the mainland  impossible. The first, though easiest to surmount, is technical: the Chinese internet is separated from the rest of the world by the great firewall, WeChat and Weibo are harder to sneak bots and operators into, and so forth. A much more difficult problem is America’s human capital deficit. The U.S. intelligence community simply does not have the people you would need to run this campaign. They do not have specialists who understand Chinese subcultures, internet norms, and the ground level texture of Chinese society well enough to make potential interference look and feel organic. America has those people. But almost all of them are very recent immigrants—not the sort federal agencies hand out security clearances to. Thus even if you found the one message custom-made to divide the Chinese nation, the signal would die in the voice of the sender. A perfectly honest critique of Party tyranny delivered by Mike Pompeo would only inoculate average Chinese against the truths he speaks. It would only work if delivered in the idiom of China’s own disaffected.

That led directly to his third objection: The field is not fallow. The Russians had success in America precisely because American society is already in shambles. The Russians could fake Texas secession and Black Lives Matters accounts because significant numbers of Texan and black Americans have already endorsed radical attacks on America’s existing body politic. The Russians did not create American political hysteria; they simply exploited divisions and conflicts two decades in the making.  It is for very similar reasons the PRC interference campaign in Taiwan has a good chance of working out: Taiwan, like America, is a society divided against itself. But is China? Where are the social fissures in which you could drive this wedge? He saw none.

He saw none—but I do. There is a fissure in the facade. The fissure that matters in today’s China is the gulf between the worlds of Meng Wanzhou and Li Hongyuan. It is the breach between those who have spent their lives jumping through hoops in chase of a chimera, and those whose only worry is that their family might come down on the wrong side of the next anti-corruption campaign. It is the gap between those who ache for some guarantee that their children will have a place in the race, and those Red few who do not have to bother with running their children in it at all. Understand: the gap I speak of is not that between the haves and the have-nots, though that is related. It is the void that separates those the Communist system is designed to save from those who it will blindly, indifferently sacrifice.

What is the most dangerous thought in modern China? Is it that the Party has jailed a million Uyghurs? That the Party has launched war on religion, speech, and a hundred other liberties? No, most Chinese do not care about these things; polling doesn’t exist, but it would surprise me to learn that the majority of Chinese do not support the Party’s policies fully in all of this. Anybody who has asked run-of-the-mill Chinese on the street what they think about Islam or minorities or  conditions that lead towards “luan” will understand this. Is it then that the Party has a history of violence and terror that left more Chinese dead than China’s foreign enemies ever managed? That disconcerts Chinese who learn about it, though in my experience the shock is more at being lied to about their history than it is about actual death tolls. The regime can survive whispered conversations about Changchun and June 4th. The most subversive, explosive message you tell the Chinese people is something different. It goes like this:

The Party is a racket.  The guys at the top are not any different from the ones you deal with at the bottom. The Party exists to make sure their kids have a spot at the front of the line no matter how much more your kids deserve it. You are not forced to call Xi all these fancy titles because it will help him restore China to its ancestral glory: you are forced to do all of that so Xi Jinping’s daughter gets into Harvard and his family racks up homes in Hong Kong. All of the taxes, the censorship, the ridiculous rules and regulations, the blustering about war, the hero-worship and the propaganda, the detention centers and the cameras—it is all a racket. You live a slave so that someone else’s children can get ahead.

That is the fissure in the facade. It is whispered of. It is wondered at. Sooner or later, it will explode.

If you found these observations on Chinese society useful, you might also find the posts “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” “The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers” or “Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Perhaps better said, the 500 million government statisticians declare live there—if they are calculating that number by means of hukou registration then a great chunk of that 500 million are rural dwellers in absentia

[2] Li Yuan, “How Huawei Lost the Heart of the Chinese Public,” New York Times, 4 December 2019.

[3] Jane Li, “Huawei’s toughest PR battle isn’t overseas, it’s at home,” Quartz, 3 December 2019.

[4] I have never heard, in private or public, a Chinese person attribute their personal wealth to the Communist Party of China. Support for the Party stems from other sources.

Leave a Reply to Lorenzo Cancel reply


I have never liked the attempts to argue that the post-1979 Beijing Regime is analogous to Third Reich Germany. There are too many ideological and structural differences that matter.

The analogy to Second Reich Germany, however, always made much more sense to me. And that fissure you are talking about is a big reason why.

To elaborate slightly, in both regimes, the path of commercial development is/was in deep tension with the structure of political authority. Leading both to adopt some version of Weltpolitik. The first case ended badly. Not confident about the second case.

"The most subversive, explosive message you tell the Chinese people is something different. It goes like this:

The Party is a racket. The guys at the top are not any different from the ones you deal with at the bottom. The Party exists to make sure their kids have a spot at the front of the line no matter how much more your kids deserve it."

I'm honestly kind of surprised by this statement. Are the citizens of China really that idealistic about their government that such a statement would be one of the most shocking for them to hear as a political message?

In so many countries, democratic and non-democratic alike, including of course in the US itself, the message that the elites are just as greedy and self-serving as, if not more so than the common folk is so unremarkable that jokes about finding non-corrupt politicians being like finding a unicorn are a dime-a-dozen.

I guess I'm just intrigued by the idea since the stereotype is that in China, people are super-cynical, not idealistic about the society around them and trust in others (e.g. not trusting the average person on the street due to scammers etc.), so to not feel that way about the government would be a stark contrast. To me, the combo of being cynical about the average person being selfish and prone to social climbing, but also idealistic that the government has the best interests of the general public at heart, seems odd. Usually, I'd think "elites are greedy, common folk are decent" are more common than the reverse, or the idea that "elites and common folk alike are equally greedy") in most societies but then again I've never lived in a society like China.

Would you say China is unusual among countries or are there many others with such strong or similar faith in the benevolence of the governing Party?

I am ambivalent as to the truly cyclical nature of Peter Turchin's idea of elite overproduction, but it certainly seems to apply here. Iran pulling the plug on supsidizing gasoline at the pump (leading to the recent riots) seems fit that idea as well.

You can't get the Chinese or Iranians middle class to riot over various "issues" with their government policy (same in the United States really), but a threat to their general status (you have to own a vehicle after all to worry about gas prices) gets people going real quick.

"The children of party regional secretaries become workers only in the pious novels of "socialist realism"; in real socialism they automatically enter the party apparatus or the diplomatic corps. Anyone who doubted this would find it difficult to quote examples of children of nomenklatura families not appointed to nomenklatura positions or married to nomenklaturists.

It is becoming more and more obvious that the ruling class in the Soviet Union is reproducing itself. True, the posts are not in themselves hereditary, but membership of the nomenklatura class has in practice become hereditary.

In following the footsteps of an ordinary careerist, we described the narrow path that may lead to the nomenklatura by way of the party organizations. But the chances of entering it by that route are becoming more and more restricted, while the royal road of birth is more and more frequently used."

Mikhail Voslensky, "Nomenklatura" (1980)

This isn't very convincing (if the premise is that this fissure's capacity is System ending, because even Environmental pollution otherwise is a form of fissure).

Party being a racket is a rhetorical tool, even if true so what. The alternative will still be Some Form of Centralized Entity because the momentum for that is not sporadic, it is intrinsically build into the Chinese psyche over 1000s of years. That is not trivial, it is of paramount importance if the debate is happening in this space of, fissures and what are the stuff which corrodes the System or the Party, etc.

China hasn't even seen a full generation of people in the labor market who are of a certain education level. Their productivity gains Per-Head hasn't even stopped peaking yet.
And lastly the Work report of Last Party Congress and new vision Party has undertaken is tackling exactly this, this fissure mentioned here is no detached from Inequality (cons/byproduct of the decades long development drive), it is part of it, they are joined at the hip.

Hence the margin by which this fissure can be construed to be of a very high seriousness isn't there. It is important, no doubt but not That important in the grand scheme of things.


The important thing I think is the sense not just that Party is helping its own, but that the Party is keeping your kid down to keep there's up. There are only so many spots at Harvard….

Also, the Party has been pretty good at a version of mythology that goes like this: local officials are greedy and terrible. Trust the righteous center to come and rectify the situation. The party people you deal with may be terrible, but there are people at the top with power to bring the sword of justice down, and they will swing it about sooner or later.

But who watches the watchmen?

The US is not Russia and if it wants to screw up the PRC's society by exploiting fissures it will not do it like Russia did. The evidence is right in front of us all if we only can see it. The US can do a thousand speeches and not do as much good at hitting the regime as an air pollution sensor on a mast at US diplomatic posts in China and web pages describing the results.

Datasets are the US' best weapon. The Chinese citizens themselves will weaponize them. The US knows facts about China that China's censors would not like to be general knowledge. Publish those facts as datasets and the outrage will be organic and genuine. That's much harder to fight. Is something wrong with the dataset? Thanks for the fix, good sir, we'll update that right away.

The US can do this openly and without ever having to apologize.

This is the segment you say you're familiar with. I'd imagine that there's even more fissures in that peasentry vs middle class divide lurking

I've long believed the one child policy which created a huge imbalance in the male/female ratio would set conditions for mass unrest. An economic downturn with a large cohort of unattached males would seem to be fertile ground for revolution.

Think of this from an insurers perspective: auto insurance for young males is expensive but drops significantly with age and marital status. From personal experience I know how my and my friend's behavior changed with marriage and family. Seen it in plenty of other guys too.

A significant number of these missing girls would now be in their 20s and 30s. So now are the men.

Another point which the author didn't touch on but is very related is that in their core, Chinese people are very passionate about life as an intellectual journey, aka lifelong learning. And parents worry that their kids intellectual journey wont be allowed to reach its full potential in china, bc at any point the CCP could shut down their work. Therefore, the move is to send kids to US for masters and PhDs, the value:cost ratio is maximized with Chinese undergrad / US PhD

I wonder how much of what the average Chinese complains about is directly related to what they are allowed to complain about. Meaning is it socially acceptable among this newly formed bourgeoisie to state (at least softly) that the party is a racket so long as you continue to do it’s bidding. While saying something about religious freedom, the Great Leap Forward or Uighur concentration camps would be considered anathema and would result in expulsion from their hard won social status. Is it just a bridge too far to talk of things that are embarrassing to the party leaders (or China) versus things that are in a underhanded way a compliment from the strivers to the elite.

@ Anonymous

I don't think the Great Leap Forward is such a terrible taboo anymore. But other more recent historical episodes are.

The US can't do much in terms of subversion directly, but what if they utilized the good ole East-meets-West tool of Hong Kong? Or the old standby of Taiwan?

Aren't they both potential weapons to be used against mainland Chinese society?

"Aren't they both potential weapons to be used against mainland Chinese society?"

Against the Chinese economy? Maybe. Against the Chinese military and political integrity? Yes. But most of China already has a dim view of these islanders, so they are not effective platforms for changing China proper. Taiwanese don't even consider themselves Chinese to start with.