In August, there was an unexpected stir in China over a scientific paper. The article, published in a respected but specialized journal, argued that during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), China had been a country relatively closed to the outside world. The most recent studies assumed that this was a bad thing and that greater openness to the modern era had led to China’s increased global position and growth. But the article took a contrary position, suggesting that there were economic and social benefits to closing the gates in large part. The argument could have remained in the realms of the academic. But it was then circulated on the social media of a think tank with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There were a lot of comments on social media, mostly wondering if the CCP was suggesting that today too, China should be wondering if opening up was such a good idea.
At first glance, it might seem that Xi Jinping’s opening speech last Sunday at the 20th Party Congress conveyed a very different message: indeed, there was a specific pledge praising the idea of opening up in the five coming years which will mark the third term. And attention at the end of Congress turned to the sudden, still unexplained escort of former President Hu Jintao from the meeting, and the new Politburo Standing Committee whose members owe their status almost entirely to Xi. But there are other signs that the China of the 2020s may be considerably less open than the one we have known for some four decades, from the 1980s to 2020. China since the 1980s has been defined by the idea that ‘reform’ and ‘openness’ went together. Yet this openness created an anomaly in the first two decades of this century. China has become a society strongly connected with the outside world but also deeply controlled and surveilled internally: open but illiberal, a combination that many democracy theorists thought impossible. Unlike the former Soviet bloc, it made little sense for China to try to prevent its citizens, with the exception of political dissidents, from traveling abroad. Reform-era Chinese studied in Britain, did business in America, visited tourist sites and bought luxury goods in Italy. Nobody stopped the visitors from observing democracy in all its forms in the liberal world, but they understood that the open discussion of the concept had stopped when they returned to Beijing airport.
This open but illiberal Chinese world ended – at least for now – in March 2020 when China closed its doors and closed its borders against Covid. Now its population moves around their homes with relative freedom, as long as their regular PCR test remains negative, but still aware that a wandering Covid case can cause a sudden lockdown for days or weeks. But traveling in and out of China, for foreigners and Chinese alike, has become much more difficult. China is now the only major country to have a zero-Covid strategy. The decision isn’t entirely political: Part of the problem is that China continues to have a huge proportion of unvaccinated older people, and its unevenly effective national vaccines don’t prevent infection or transmission very well. . But the zero-Covid policy is very much associated with Xi personally and his speech made it clear that there is no prospect of change in the short term at least.
The effects are clear. Chinese students are returning in decent numbers to British universities; yet, once there, they know it is better to enjoy their stay abroad, because once they return home, they will have to wait for days in a hotel, hoping for the green light to shine on their application. Meanwhile, foreign businessmen, students and tourists flocking to China have become a real rarity. People will go there and stay in quarantine if they have urgent business to do. But the quick visits that global entrepreneurs regularly make to other countries are no longer possible, and over time this may well affect China’s international competitiveness as it seeks to attract talent and funding in areas such as than technology.
Instead, existing technology has created a new Chinese cyberworld. China remains connected to the outside world largely through the virtual environment, especially social media and video apps. Yet the worldview created within the country is very partial. State media broadcast images of the West still devastated by the virus. As China’s tech sector becomes much more sophisticated, a new message is emerging: Chinese people are encouraged to work, study and play at home. (Why go overseas, of course, when China is the most advanced society in the world?) Ironically, Chinese technology is spreading more and more as its 5G systems are deployed in the South, but the Chinese themselves are much less visible. in the world they create.
The economic policy that Xi has proposed contains a similar kind of contradiction. The core idea of the “dual circulation” policy is that China should increase its trade surplus with the rest of the world, while simultaneously becoming more dependent on its domestic economy to drive consumption. Many economists believe this will be a difficult balance to manage. But, in a sense, strategy should not be seen as an exercise in economics but in politics. It accurately reflects the idea of being strongly connected to the world while being physically closed off.
However, isolation brings its own problems. Being virtually connected to the world can provide rich data in the abstract, but lived experience matters too, and there is a deafness to most of China’s recent international forays. Diplomacy, academic ties and exchanges cannot really work if one of the partners is only rarely willing to open up to the world.
The Ming Dynasty analogy posted on Twitter in August is not straightforward. Yes, the era was when China was, in general, not openly accessible to the outside world. But there were many who succeeded, including the Jesuits. There was also considerable private maritime trade with the rest of the world. China’s isolation was porous – but it was also real. A “Sinosphere” in which China itself remains more difficult for outsiders to access, even as it engages with the outside world on its own terms, is a real possibility. However, compared to a real opening, it is an opening that would impoverish both parties.
Rana Mitter is Professor of Modern Chinese History and Politics at Oxford University