Flights, cameras, action: Anthony Albanese travels to a restless China

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Shanghai: In the middle of Yan’an Road in central Shanghai on Halloween, a man dressed as Chinese literary hero Lu Xun launched into a speech.

“Those who can speak out, speak out,” he said. “If it has some heat and shines some light, it will be like a firefly. It can also shine a little in the dark.”

The speech was delivered to thousands of revellers who had descended on one of Shanghai’s most popular streets for the American tradition that is rapidly rising in popularity across East Asia. The man dressed as Lu was promptly ushered away by police.

Expressing frustration: A Shanghai Halloween costume depicts a CCTV camera ubiquitous in China.

Nearby, one woman had covered herself in white sheets of A4 paper, mimicking those who protested against the draconian lockdowns that swamped the same streets in Shanghai this time last year.

Frustrated, disaffected and unemployed, Shanghai’s youth threw themselves at Halloween this week to vent their frustration in the only way they legally can: by having fun.

One came as a giant CCTV camera. Another as a liberal studies student with a donation plate. One recent university graduate arrived holding a rubbish bin with “talent pool” written on it.

“It’s a great chance to unleash the desire,” said Wakkii Zheng, a man who had dressed as the main character from the Chinese TV drama Empresses in the Palace.

Wakkii Zheng as an empress at Halloween in Shanghai.

Feminists, the LGBTQ community and liberal students have all been targeted by the Chinese Communist Party as it clamps down on groups that may threaten the increasingly hardline ideology of President Xi Jinping.

“Once again, entertainment is not superficial, behind it are real-life scars,” wrote one user on Chinese social media site Weibo.

On Thursday, many of the same generation mourned the loss of former premier Li Keqiang, who died of a heart attack. The Chinese government responded by censoring “overly effusive” comments and gatherings for the 68-year-old who was seen as a relatively liberal balance to Xi’s brand of nationalist Marxism.

“I imagine they are extra sensitive to any public gatherings at the moment,” said Dr Altman Peng from the University of Warwick in England. “The regime is likely to impose more restrictions on public gatherings and target people who use the occasion to express political opinions.”

Then Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in 2016.Credit: AP

One young professional living in Shanghai, who asked not to be identified because speaking to the media can be politically sensitive in China, said Li’s death would have little impact on the balance of power in Beijing when it is already so heavily concentrated around Xi.

“When a regime is synonymous with a person’s name, there is a numbness to any change,” he said.

Esther dressed up as a “job-hunting ghost” during Halloween in Shanghai.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will meet Xi on Monday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In Tiananmen Square where the hall is situated, Xi’s power is absolute, but among the youth there is a restlessness being driven by factors outside their control, including China’s struggling economy.

One in five Chinese aged between 16 and 24 is now unemployed. The country’s official annual economic growth reached 4.9 per cent in the year to September. The actual figures could be much lower.

Capital Economics estimates economic growth since 2019 is 6 percentage points lower than the official GDP data based on factory, property and consumer figures.

The sluggish domestic growth rates have forced leaders to push for more foreign investment and largely abandon its “Made in China 2025” plan.

Anthony Albanese’s China visit and meeting with Xi Jinping will be closely watched. Here they are pictured at the G20 in Bali last year.Credit: James Brickwood

On Sunday, Xi and Premier Li Qiang will argue the country is open for business at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai. Foreign executives, including Australians, attending the three-day gala are increasingly wary of an environment that has tightened sharply under national security laws and the threat of retaliation from the Chinese government over geopolitical disputes.

Harvard Business School associate professor Jeremy Friedman said China’s economic slowdown and youth malaise could ultimately be blamed on decisions taken by its government.

“One of the most venerable and compelling explanations is that China is simply reaching the limits of its investment-heavy, export-driven growth model – an explanation adopted by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party itself in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis,” he wrote in Foreign Policy in September.

“Chinese leaders believed then that if they could increase consumption at home, China would not be as dependent on foreign consumers racking up debts to buy Chinese goods.”

More than a decade later consumers are more reluctant to spend than at any time since the 1980s, threatening the Chinese government’s social contract with younger generations: the promise of wealth and prosperity in exchange for tighter social controls.

“Life in big cities like Shanghai can be oppressive,” said 29-year-old worker Liu Yang. “The job, family, and social environment creates an invisible pressure that I can’t explain.”

Now, the youth won’t be able to explain how unemployed they are either. The government stopped publishing the youth unemployment rate in September.

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