[MUSIC]

lulu garcia-navarro

From New York Times Opinion, I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and this is “First Person.” When Chinese President Xi Jinping took office a decade ago, he started talking about what he called the Chinese dream.

xi jinping

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

lulu garcia-navarro

The Chinese dream, he explained, meant Chinese people would find prosperity and economic opportunity in China under the Communist system. And the years that followed delivered on that promise. But Covid has put that dream in peril. Covid zero has shaken people’s faith in the government, and the economy has taken a huge hit. One in five young people in China are now unemployed.

Julie Geng is part of the generation that was supposed to live the Chinese dream. She’s 25 years old and was born and raised in Shanghai. After completing high school and college in the U.S., she returned to China in 2019 just before the pandemic began, which means she’s experienced life under Covid zero, including the parts the government has tried to hide. Today, Julie Geng on the policies and protests that have shaken China and its future.

Julie, I want to talk first about how you ended up at boarding school in Massachusetts for high school, because obviously, that’s a very long way from Shanghai. Of course, sending students abroad to elite schools who would then come back and be leaders in China was an actual strategy of the government for decades. I’m curious how your parents talked about the decision to send you abroad. What did they want for you?

julie geng

Well, I wasn’t sent by the government, and I wasn’t sent by my parents, actually. So my mom, she didn’t really want me to study abroad, actually, as early as a high schooler. She wanted me to go abroad for college. But my classmates, they were all planning to go to boarding school. So that’s how I got roped into it — and then went home, told my parents, I’m going to the States. The education is better there. I’m not wasting my time here, so you should pay for my tuition and send me abroad.

lulu garcia-navarro

So you had this idea that somehow the education was better, there was going to be more opportunities for you by going to boarding school.

julie geng

Yes, absolutely.

lulu garcia-navarro

You know, one of the things that I think about when I think about America is that there is such a big focus on individualism here, you know, this idea that we’re going to do it all ourselves. Was that something that you noticed? Was that something that you remarked on?

julie geng

Well, yes and no. I feel like I’m already a very individualistic person to begin with. That’s why I took the initiative to go abroad as early as a high schooler. So for that part, I feel like the U.S. is the right place for me. It’s a place where I can make my own decisions, where I can explore different things. There isn’t a specific path for me to follow in order to be successful. All my teachers were telling me, you should do what you’re passionate about. You should be creative, innovative.

So my teachers’ encouragement definitely helped me sort of step out of the template that my parents, or the Chinese society, had kind of instilled in me — yeah.

lulu garcia-navarro

So you attend high school and college in the U.S., and this is the 2010s, which was a decade with a lot of social unrest. You know, we had Trump’s election, the Women’s March, the early days of Black Lives Matter. How did you understand the relationship between protest and government in the United States?

julie geng

So Trump got elected my sophomore year. That’s when I started participating in activism, and also marches and protests. I went to the March for Undocumented Immigrants in Boston. That was the first one I attended. And I also went to a Black Lives Matter march over the summer. Going back to Trump’s election, that day at Williams, people just gathered in the Student Center. And we had an open mic — people can talk about their thoughts.

So I think for me, protest is more about solidarity rather than pushing for concrete changes. That was my belief at the moment. But when it comes to concrete changes, I still felt like we should call our representatives. We should try to run for office — and not we, I mean, the U.S. citizens. They should do that, ultimately, in order to bring about concrete changes.

lulu garcia-navarro

Yeah, because I’m imagining you, Julie, going out in solidarity at a time of a lot of protesting. And I’m wondering what your experience of that had been in China — because of course, Tiananmen Square, that’s what a lot of people outside of China associate with China and protest. I mean, growing up, did you know about Tiananmen Square? Had you heard about it?

julie geng

I didn’t know until 2009 — yes, so that’s 20 years after, I think. Yeah, so — and I heard about it from my parents, but not the specifics. And I was baffled. I was like, what happened 20 years ago? They seem so secretive about it. My mom told me there was something happening in Beijing. The students were out of control. That’s what she said, yeah, she told me they were out of control. And they didn’t tell me much more.

At the moment, we had the great firewall. And I didn’t have my own way to get around it —

lulu garcia-navarro

Meaning — the great firewall is the way that the Chinese government blocks its citizens from actually Googling things and looking up things independently. There are certain subjects that are censored.

julie geng

Yes, so I realized I couldn’t really access any more information on my own. But as soon as I arrive in the United States, people start asking questions about Tiananmen Square, or make reference to it. That’s when I started looking up things on YouTube —

archived recording 1

The peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in China comes to a violent and bloody end.

julie geng

— watched several documentaries —

archived recording 2

Overnight, the Chinese Red Cross issued a statement, saying 2,600 people have been killed.

lulu garcia-navarro

What did it make you think?

julie geng

Well, so when I arrived in the U.S. I quickly developed a negative impression of China. And Tiananmen Square was definitely a part of it, because ideology-wise, the U.S. and China are just polar opposites for me. And I felt like I had to make a choice, so either choose to be integrated into the U.S. society and find a way to stay, or I have to go back to a super authoritarian place where my freedom will be taken away at any moment. Yeah.

lulu garcia-navarro

Eventually, though, you do go back to China after you finish school. You move in 2019. Why did you think about going back to China?

julie geng

Well, when I went back after college graduation, I wasn’t intending to stay indefinitely. So when I went back, it was kind of for me to reconnect with China. As I said, initially, I developed a lot of negative emotions towards China. But after a while, I realized things were more nuanced, especially when Trump got elected, when the trade war started, and then racial discrimination sort of escalated. I realized I didn’t feel as safe in the U.S. as before.

That’s kind of the motivation behind me being open to reconnect with China. And to be completely honest, when I went back to China, things were great for me. I speak English. I graduated from a pretty prestigious university. People think quite highly of me. And I realized, culturally, I’m still very Chinese. And all of a sudden, people around me look just like me once again. So I started doing internships.

I landed my first internship position in Beijing at a local — not a local — Chinese investment bank. You can understand it as, like, the equivalent or the counterpart of Goldman Sachs, China version. So I would say, initially, it was a great experience, to be completely honest.

lulu garcia-navarro

Did it feel like there was a lot of opportunity at that moment in China? I mean, did it feel like people like you sort of had a lot of choice?

julie geng

Yes. I think in general, young people, they have a lot of — or at least people with good qualifications, they have a lot of options in China. I would definitely agree with that.

lulu garcia-navarro

I mean, I’m asking because back in 2012, Xi Jinping started talking about the Chinese dream, this idea that he pegged to the explosive growth of the economy — basically, saying that China could provide opportunities for all its people under the Communist system. In 2019, in Beijing, did it feel like you were living — or that you could see that there was this Chinese dream?

julie geng

Well, there was the Chinese dream for people like me, to be honest, right? If you enter an investment bank, you start as an analyst, and your salary will double in two years. But for most people, that’s not true at all. In China, what you see everywhere are delivery people and then migrant workers. I think for them, there is no Chinese dream.

lulu garcia-navarro

So you’re in Beijing. You’re doing an internship at an investment bank. And then in December of 2019, the first Covid cases are reported in Wuhan. And by the end of January, that whole city of 11 million people was under lockdown. In Beijing, how bad did it get for you in that first wave?

julie geng

Well, in Beijing, things were very much under control. I will have to say that I felt very safe during the first wave of Covid in 2020. So in December, I actually got a job offer. So I was going to be officially employed by the investment bank. And that’s when I realized probably I don’t want to go back to the States anymore, and I will just start a full time job in Beijing for the moment, and re-evaluate.

And starting in March, I recall, things were back to normal. You can go to the parks. You can go into shopping malls. You can travel around in China freely — yeah. So in August 2020, I had an internal transfer at my company, and I got relocated to Shanghai.

lulu garcia-navarro

So you’ve been able to move city. Things are open. You can go out. How did you see the Chinese government’s response to Covid at that time? Did you see it as effective, considering all that?

julie geng

Yes, absolutely. I was impressed. I was proud, actually. And I was telling my friends to come back to China. And a lot of them did.

lulu garcia-navarro

Did that surprise you, feeling proud, given how you’d felt before about the government?

julie geng

Definitely. So I felt like I just had this internal conflict and cognitive dissonance going on with me all throughout these years. And that’s when I realized maybe China and the U.S. for me feels like divorced parents. That’s the analogy I drew. I feel like I was just jumping between these two places. I felt like they had their own pros and cons, and I can’t choose.

lulu garcia-navarro

Because I imagine you are looking at the pandemic response in the United States, and comparing them, what were you thinking about what was happening in America at this moment?

julie geng

I was very disappointed. I had some friends who were living in New York City at the time, and one of them, she was telling me she felt super unsafe.

She saw what’s going on with racism and especially anti Asian sentiments. Yeah, I didn’t expect — no one expected omicron, right, this amazing variant. At the time, it was still Delta time, I think. With the earlier lockdowns, usually there were a couple hundred cases.

So I felt like maybe for China, the dynamic of Covid zero makes more sense.

lulu garcia-navarro

When did you start to notice that maybe the way China was doing things wasn’t exactly working, and when did their strategy of continuing lockdowns impact you personally?

julie geng

So we had several cases starting in early March —

lulu garcia-navarro

Of 2022?

julie geng

Yes. And actually, in Shanghai, when we started to have several couple of dozens of cases in Shanghai, I was still very much in support of “zero Covid” because of my family. So I have two younger brothers who are six years old — so they were five years old last year. And I also have — my grandma and grandpa live in the northern part of China. So yeah, I very much felt like “zero Covid” can protect them better.

So that was the initial thoughts. And then there were two cases in my own neighborhood complex. So I was put on lockdown as early as mid-March —

lulu garcia-navarro

And this was the first time you had experienced it.

julie geng

Yes, yes.

lulu garcia-navarro

And what did it actually mean? I mean, were you able to leave your house to get groceries? I mean, what does it mean to be locked down?

julie geng

Well, so I have to be honest — so initially, I actually didn’t mind being locked down, honestly. Yeah — I’m an introvert, you know. And I kind of like to stay home to begin with. And initially, in March, I can still order things online. You can order groceries. You can order food. And yeah, you can keep buying clothes and stuff from Taobao. But you can’t physically walk out of the neighborhood complex, so you can’t walk outside the gates on the actual streets.

But my life was pretty much normal. So — and I had more time to watch TV at home, so at first I didn’t mind it, and started cooking, started baking. Yeah, but then things got out of control when we had the full lockdown starting on April 1. So starting then, you can’t even order things online. And you have to do these group buys to buy basic groceries with your neighbors.

lulu garcia-navarro

I mean, during the Shanghai lockdown was the first time I think here in the US a lot of us heard about the discontent with Covid zero policy from inside China. I mean, there was an audio montage that went viral in April.

archived recording 3

It’s the video Chinese censors do not want you to see or share —

archived recording 4

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

archived recording 3

— as it sparked a rare digital uprising on social media this weekend, highlighting a shared misery and helplessness felt across Shanghai.

lulu garcia-navarro

What were you hearing about your city and the growing outcry inside China? Did you know what was happening?

julie geng

Yes, absolutely. These things go viral on WeChat and they get deleted within a day. Yeah, like, we knew what was happening, all the tragedies and frustration. And I remember I was actually — so I stay at home, but I wanted to do some kind of volunteering. I wanted to help. So initially, I was a volunteer with an online medical assistance group. That’s when I realized that people of different socioeconomic classes are being affected completely differently.

lulu garcia-navarro

What were you seeing?

julie geng

So one time, I had to call an ambulance for someone who’s terminally ill — yeah, but they couldn’t leave their neighborhood compound because they can’t get approval from the neighborhood committee. And they had to call the police to ask whether the police car can come. And the next morning, I asked the relative, I think, whether they managed to leave the compound and reach the hospital. And they told me that the patient has passed away.

So that was the biggest shock for me. That was my first personal kind of connection with something terrible that happened. And that was right before I got the disease myself.

lulu garcia-navarro

You got Covid in the middle of the lockdown. I mean, what happened?

julie geng

Yeah, I basically had a meltdown because I didn’t want to go to the quarantine center. I wasn’t afraid of the disease, because I knew what Omicron was, and I am a really healthy person. So I was totally confident that I was going to survive. And I had a fever for two days, and became completely normal again. But then the Disease Control Center and the Neighborhood Committee, they kept calling me, demanding that I should be transferred to the quarantine center.

lulu garcia-navarro

For people who may not know how this was being dealt with, what were they actually asking you to do? What is a quarantine center?

julie geng

Yeah, they are called Fangcang in Chinese, so they should be hospitals. But they’re actually not hospitals, especially during the Shanghai lockdown. They were constructing these quarantine centers under a time crunch, and you’re essentially living with other Covid patients in a stadium. So imagine you’re just on the basketball court, and you probably have 20 beds side by side on the basketball courts.

So that’s kind of what the quarantine center looks like. And you have shared bathroom, and there isn’t hot water. I watched a lot of videos of quarantine centers on WeChat, and I was so concerned about the living condition there. And I haven’t had roommates for five years. And I couldn’t imagine living with, like, 100 other people — yeah, and that was totally, like, nerve wracking, or just unacceptable. It felt like the end of the world to me, honestly — yeah.

lulu garcia-navarro

But wait, Julie, you’re living alone at this point, right?

julie geng

Yes.

lulu garcia-navarro

You’re effectively in isolation, but you were supposed to go to a quarantine center?

julie geng

Yes, so that’s the ridiculous part, because they are afraid that if you, for example, open the door — right, and you have neighbors living next to you, you will get them Covid. Yeah, that’s the rationale. And when they called me that weekend on April 10, the neighborhood committee asked me specifically, do you want to be transferred to the quarantine center? And I refused. And then the Disease Control called again, confirming, and I said no. And then they stopped calling me.

And I thought things were OK. But then Shanghai had another policy in mid-April, so around April 15, they had the policy called — [SPEAKING CHINESE] — which means you have to transfer everyone who’s supposed to be transferred to the quarantine center. So starting from that day, everyone, as long as they hadn’t turned negative yet, they had to be transferred. And I was included on that list.

lulu garcia-navarro

So did you go?

julie geng

Yes. So that day, the police called me — yeah.

lulu garcia-navarro

The police?

julie geng

Yes, but this policeman was super nice, actually. He knew that I was very resistant to the idea of being transferred. And I told him that I get really anxious when I live with other people, and I actually do have a diagnosis from a psychiatrist. So I negotiated with him, and he agreed to petition for me, and asked whether I could be transferred to a quarantine hotel instead. So yeah, fortunately and unfortunately, I ended up being transferred to a hotel two kilometers from my apartment, which is ridiculous to me.

Like, why do I have to be transferred from an isolated room to another isolated room? But the facilities were OK. I actually —

lulu garcia-navarro

Better than a stadium.

julie geng

— yes. Much, much better. So I didn’t mind it in terms of the living condition. But I felt like at the moment, I was like fragile emotionally. That’s when the video montage started circulating. I felt like I was just living in a dystopia. That’s literally how it felt.

lulu garcia-navarro

How long were you there for? What did you have to do to finally get out?

julie geng

I was there for six days. So the first test I got at the quarantine hotel, I turned negative. So on the second day I arrived, I turned negative. And then you have to get tested again after 48 hours. So on the fourth or the fifth day, I got my second negative test. And then I got released the subsequent day.

lulu garcia-navarro

You use the word dystopia. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? I mean, how were you thinking after that about the Covid zero policy?

julie geng

I fully realized that it’s not sustainable. And I have to say I felt ashamed, honestly. I felt ashamed that it took me getting the disease and dealing with the quarantine arrangement for me to realize that, to realize that this is not sustainable, and is actually harming the majority of people in China — their income, their livelihood, their health.

[MUSIC]

lulu garcia-navarro

After the break, anger over Covid zero erupts just blocks from Julie’s apartment.

archived recording 5

[CHANTING IN CHINESE]

By the time the Shanghai lockdown ended at the end of May, did you find that people around you were feeling the same way that you were, that they were frustrated with the policy too — or not?

julie geng

Well, my friends — so people like me, definitely. We’re all on the same page. And a lot of my friends left, actually. So you had this run-ology in China — that’s the term, I think — or the study of run, the idea that you need to get out of China. So some of my friends went to Hong Kong. Others applied to grad school programs in the States or in the U.K. — me, included. I was trying to get into law school.

There is this huge disconnect between people among the elite, and then others, and with — for people who have the option to get out of China, they immediately left. And they don’t really care about trying to make change happen. I think that’s why we didn’t have anything like an unrest or protest in May.

lulu garcia-navarro

So the elites like you who have opportunities were doing run-ology, thinking about how to get out of China. How did you understand — maybe other people who were less able to leave the country seeing the lockdown? Do you think that it still had support?

julie geng

Yes, definitely. So once I was on a taxi, and the taxi driver told me that even though he didn’t have any income for two months, he felt glad that people are not dying in China like people are doing in other countries.

lulu garcia-navarro

And what did that make you think?

julie geng

Well, I was shocked, and also I felt like I was feeling some kind of condescension towards them, to be honest. I felt like they didn’t know better. Like, why haven’t you come to your senses? Like, don’t you see that it’s harming your own livelihood? Like, why are you still supporting the government? I felt like at that moment, my impression of China kind of reverted back to the sentiment that I had in high school.

I felt like people here are super submissive. They’re just doing what the government is telling them to do.

lulu garcia-navarro

But obviously, that ended up changing. Late last month, protests erupted across China against Covid zero after a fire broke out in an apartment complex in the city of Urumqi, and a number of people died supposedly because of Covid restrictions that didn’t allow them to leave the building.

archived recording 6

The next day, residents upset by the deadly fire took their frustrations to the streets, having —

lulu garcia-navarro

And then those protests spread across the country, including to Shanghai.

archived recording 7

Unprecedented protests are erupting across China.

archived recording 8

The last time China saw anything like this was in 1989.

lulu garcia-navarro

How did you hear about them, and did you go?

julie geng

Yes, so I saw pictures and videos on WeChat. And I — actually, my own apartment is two blocks away from Urumqi Road. So in Shanghai, there is a road called Urumqi Road, which is the epicenter of the protest. And I personally didn’t stay at a protest for very long. I passed by, because given the history of China, I was very much concerned about people’s safety.

archived recording 9

In Shanghai, police arrested — roughed up protesters, violently dragging them into cars.

julie geng

So there was a student in Nanjing who held up the initial blank sheet of paper to kind of set off the protest in Nanjing. She has disappeared, and I feel like these stories — I don’t know how true they are, but I think people for the most part are still very much concerned for each other’s safety. And recently, in Shanghai, the police is stopping people to check their phones. So they’re checking whether you have VPN on your phone, or applications such as Telegram, Instagram and Twitter — yeah.

lulu garcia-navarro

What did you make of the protests? You had been in that taxicab with that driver, thinking the Chinese were submissive. Were you surprised to see people speaking up?

julie geng

Yes. So on one hand, like I said, I was concerned about the safety of these protesters. And on the other hand, it was invigorating — yeah, so that went back to my understanding of protest and marches. I realize it’s very much about solidarity, knowing that we’re all on the same page now, that we don’t really care about getting the disease. We care about the negative consequences of Covid zero.

And we know that for China to continue to grow into the superpower it wants to grow into, we have to save our economy. And more realistically speaking, people need to make money. You know, it’s going to be Chinese New Year again. People haven’t been able to go home for the past three years. Yeah, we are frustrated. So it’s a sign that we are in this together, that we know we have to say something. Yeah, we can’t just continue being submissive.

lulu garcia-navarro

I mean, the government has announced that it is going to make changes. Does it feel like there’s been a fundamental change, that the government could be responsive to protest?

julie geng

Well, to be honest I’m kind of cautious — yeah. I feel like Covid is already something that a government is pushing for, so to some extent, these goals were aligned, so it didn’t feel like a big compromise on the part of the government. But if we were to push for something more disruptive, for example, something that would threaten the CCP, right, that will threaten the people in positions of power, or completely change our government system or economic system, that wouldn’t be acceptable.

Yeah, so I feel like there is a line, very much so. And with Covid, it wasn’t that red line.

lulu garcia-navarro

How do you think people are taking the government’s about face on Covid policy? Do they believe the government’s position that they have vanquished Covid?

julie geng

Well, yeah, my mom just asked me this this morning. She was like, what if we hit, like, 10,000 cases in Shanghai and they put us under lockdown again? And I think that’s still very much shared among Chinese people — yeah, that they might even backpedal. So I feel like there is some kind of anxiety or uncertainty, at least, but at least victory for now, because today I don’t have to go get tested.

lulu garcia-navarro

Julie, I’m curious, considering everything that you’ve been through, how you’re feeling about your own future in China, given the uncertainty you’re talking about, you know, what could happen next? How has this affected your plans?

julie geng

Well, I mentioned before, I was applying to law school in the United States. And I really hope one of them will give me an offer. That’s my plan for my future.

lulu garcia-navarro

You’re saying you’re going to run. I’m curious, what does it say to you that so many people like you, who are seen as the future leaders of the country, are trying to leave? I mean, is that Chinese dream really damaged by what’s just happened?

julie geng

Well, I would say I’m different from 10 years ago. Like, when I arrived in boarding school, I felt like I knew for sure I wanted to stay in the States, right? But now, I’m kind of even more on the fence. I’m not really completely trusting the United States either. And with China, my family is still here. So I feel like I still really want things to be better in China. It goes back to that analogy of divorced parents. You know, you want both places to be amazing, ultimately.

lulu garcia-navarro

When you talk to other young people like yourself, who have the opportunity to leave, one of the things that people have talked about is that living in China, you’ve had to make a kind of deal, which is you accept certain restrictions, but there’s economic prosperity. You can make a life for yourself there. Do you think the Covid lockdowns have fundamentally changed that calculus, that people now think — we can’t really trust the government anymore. It’s too intrusive — their control.

I mean, do you think people are now seeing this differently than they did before?

julie geng

So for some of my friends, they are moving to Singapore to live there and work there. But they also told me that if one day China is reopened, and things are getting better, business opportunities are back on track, the property market crisis is resolved somehow, they are definitely open to coming back — because ultimately, we all feel more culturally confident in China. And that’s still going to be true, regardless.

I don’t know — people in general here, they have a lot of anxieties, especially people in the elite. Everyone has a fire escape plan, let me tell you. Either they either a passport, they all have a permanent residency, or they’re looking into some ways to have a get out of China option.

lulu garcia-navarro

Because things feel unstable.

julie geng

Very much so, politically and economically.

lulu garcia-navarro

Well, good luck in your quest for law schools. I wish you the best.

julie geng

Thank you.

[MUSIC]

lulu garcia-navarro

“First Person” is a production of New York Times Opinion. This episode was produced by Wyatt Orme and Derek Arthur. It was edited by Stephanie Joyce and Kaari Pitkin. Mixing by Sonia Herrera and Isaac Jones. Original music by Isaac Jones. Fact checking by Mary Marge Locker. The rest of the “First Person” team includes Anabel Bacon, Olivia Natt, Courtney Stein, Jillian Weinberger and Sofia Alvarez Boyd.

Special thanks to Kristina Samulewski Shannon Busta, Alison Benedict, Annie-Rose Strasser and Katie Kingsbury.

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