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Chinese censors go after ‘last generation’ references on social media platforms

China's COVID-19 vaccine (Marco Verch Professional/Flickr)
May 17, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Censors backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have deleted references to a viral video that spawned the “last generation” meme, which emerged as a form of protest over ongoing lockdowns, mass incarcerations and compulsory testing under its zero-COVID policy.

In the video, PPE-clad police officials turn up outside someone’s apartment and tries to force them to go to an isolation camp even though he had recently tested negative for coronovirus.

“We’re negative. You have no right to take us away,” the man says, before a police officer steps forward wagging a finger and says: “You know that we will punish you, right? And when that happens, it will have a bad effect on your family for three generations.”

“Sorry. We’re the last generation,” the man replies in the video which began circulating on Chinese social media platforms from May 11, garnering huge numbers of views and comments.

Searches for the video or the keywords “last generation” yielded no results on Thursday.

The meme has apparently fed in to a culture of passive resistance begun with the “lying down” movement of 2021.

Some have joked online that the era from 1966 onwards was all about the innocence of revolution and justified rebellion, while the 1989 pro-democracy movement felt it was their “duty” to protest.

By contrast, the youth of 2022 are shutting up shop before their lives have properly begun, by referring to themselves as the “last generation.”

A related meme talks about the study of “run,” a Chinese character that echoes the English word “run,” meaning finding ways to leave the country.

The memes come at a time when the CCP is hoping to get people to have more children amid concerns over a rapidly aging and dwindling population.

But even before the “last generation” meme emerged, Shanghai officials had announced that the city’s birth rate fell below the rate of 1 needed for the population to replace itself, to just 0.73.

Anger over zero-COVID policies

Ye Yaoyuan, head of the Department of International Studies and Contemporary Linguistics at St. Thomas in the United States, said the phrase highlights huge popular anger over the zero-COVID policies, likening it to a pressure cooker.

“In the years between 1989 to 2022, the CCP has developed an incomparable array of tools for controlling the population,” Ye told RFA. “They are now trying to monitor [public opinion] because they fear the emergence of collective action and resistance”

“Back in 1989 [before the mass pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square and across China], they didn’t actually have that capability.”

The stated refusal to toe the line and produce another generation is a deep and disturbing form of dissent for the CCP and leader Xi Jinping, who wants to project an image of self-confidence in China’s authoritarian form of government, in a bid to show the world its superiority over Western-style liberal democracy.

Xi has also presided over a blanket ban on private tuition and other measures aimed at making child-rearing less stressful and expensive for parents, while his government has raised the maximum number of children per couple from two to three.

Yi Fuxian, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin who follows China’s population policy and family planning controls, said prosperity is a key driver of birth rates.

“What the government should do is create a better environment and lifestyle, so that people are willing to have children,” Yi told RFA.

“This is the government’s obligation and responsibility.”

‘You can’t stop them at all’

A man who gave only the surname Chen said he understood the feelings of powerless engendered by the Shanghai lockdown, saying he too is fighting to remain in his hotel quarantine room, despite testing negative for COVID-19.

Chen said he wants to save his cat 14sky from being bludgeoned to death or poisoned by officials if he is forced to go to an isolation camp.

“These people who have power can do any crazy thing they want, and you can’t stop them at all,” Chen said, adding that he plans to stay single with his cat.

“No matter what you do, you will have a strong sense of powerlessness, because you have no control over anything,” Chen said. “Sometimes you just want to be a person. It’s very difficult, very desperate.”

Ming Juzheng, an honorary professor of politics at National Taiwan University, said the CCP likely fears that if it relaxes restrictions now, there will be a resurgence of COVID-19 just in time for the 20th party congress later this year.

“This would be an unacceptable challenge [for Xi], whose entire ideological line would be thrown into question, and his regime overthrown,” Ming said.

He added: “The CCP has a pathological attachment to power.”

Taiwan political commentator Ren Sung-lin said the zero-COVID policy more of a political campaign than a public health policy, and the Shanghai lockdown is a part of Xi’s need to show he can bring the city — an internationally connected economic powerhouse — to heel.