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How will China's economic stagnation impact its relations with the U.S.?

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. With the U.S. supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia and Israel in its war against Hamas, it's a particularly hazardous time to risk armed conflict with China. The competitive, contentious relationship between China and the U.S. has been at its lowest point in decades, so it's significant that President Biden and President Xi of China met yesterday. We're going to talk about the results of that meeting and what life is like in China under Xi, who has become increasingly authoritarian.

My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. In his recent New Yorker article, "China's Age Of Malaise," he writes about how China's economic boom has ended, and he considers the question, is a stagnating China more likely to end up at war with the U.S. or less? Osnos examines how President Xi's rule and the country's economic problems are affecting China's relations with the U.S. and countries like Russia and Iran, and how Xi has been controlling the government, the military, the media, pop culture and even aspects of family life. Osnos draws on his recent trip to China. He lived in Beijing and covered China from 2005 to 2013. After moving back to the U.S, he published a book about China that won a National Book Award.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's always a pleasure to have you on the show. I have to say, parenthetically, we've met a lot more times than Biden and Xi have.

(LAUGHTER)

EVAN OSNOS: Well, and I'm glad for that. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: So what do you think is the larger significance of just the fact that Biden and Xi met face-to-face?

OSNOS: Yeah, that in and of itself is important. I think we sometimes just assume that what's really the difference ultimately of meeting at the high levels or meeting - talking over the phone and so on. But actually, it's especially important with a government like China's, because Xi Jinping has surrounded himself with so many loyalists, frankly, people who know what he wants to hear. They know how to make him happy. And that has generated a real concern on the American side that they can't be sure what kind of information is getting to him. How filtered is it? And that's why they wanted to make sure, Biden especially wanted to talk face-to-face directly with Xi Jinping to be sure that nothing was getting garbled along the way.

GROSS: Of all the topics that they talked about, what do you think is the most significant accomplishment?

OSNOS: I think there's something very important in resuming military-to-military communication. It probably surprises people to know, in fact, that these two countries, you know, the - arguably the two most dominant militaries in the world have gone for large stretches over the last year and a half in which they had absolutely no communication between their militaries. And, you know, this is a time in which you have American and Chinese ships and airplanes coming into closer and closer proximity with one another in the South China Sea. And the hot line and the regular pace of communications between them had gone silent. And that is deeply concerning.

And frankly, there were a lot of American strategists who have come to believe that the Chinese side was actually comfortable with that risk. They basically wanted the United States to decide this was too dangerous, that if two vessels hit one another and it led to some larger conflict, that we wouldn't take that risk. And they thought that might just compel the United States to pull out its forces from the Asia Pacific and reduce its presence there. And that was never going to happen. And as a result, that was a really risky scenario. So now these two are back to talking, and it's by no means paradise, but it is progress. And I think it's important to recognize that.

GROSS: Why were military-to-military communications broken off in the first place?

OSNOS: They ended after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August. And then this chill really expanded across the full scope of the diplomatic relationship after the spy balloon from China that drifted across the United States was shot down in January. As a result of that, really, the two sides went into a defensive crouch, and for a long time, they just were not talking. And if you talk to people who work on these issues, national security crises and the ways that you prevent them from erupting, they will tell you that those silences are deadly, because it's in those periods that you get misperceptions and suspicions and you begin to think the worst of your adversary or your competitor. And bringing that silence to an end is actually a meaningful step, even if it's clear that these two sides have a lot that divides them.

GROSS: I guess an accidental collision of any sort between the two sides, you know, in the military without an open line of communication can lead to a misunderstanding that could lead to armed conflict for no reason.

OSNOS: That's exactly right. I mean, there have been incidents recently when Chinese jets, for instance, have come within 10 feet, which is extraordinarily close to American bombers. And, you know, part of this is that China is very uncomfortable with the United States being there. But it's a fact of international law that the United States is allowed to fly in that territory, and it has no intention of changing that. This is part of America's commitment to the security of its partners in the region, places like Korea, Japan and Taiwan. And the fear was that if there was a collision, even accidental, unintended, that if you didn't have communication, then you would not know if it was, in fact, accidental - or was it a provocation? That's the kind of scenario that we dealt with in the Cold War, and it brought us to the edge of real peril. And one of the lessons from that period was, as Winston Churchill said, actually, he says it's better to meet jaw-to-jaw than it is to meet on the battlefield. And that is a lesson that I think still runs through the theory today.

GROSS: They talked about fentanyl. How far did Biden get in convincing Xi to regulate the flow of precursor chemicals, the chemicals that are used to manufacture fentanyl?

OSNOS: He did get an agreement. They said that they would regulate and ultimately shut down some of these pill presses and places that produce these chemicals. But frankly, Terry, we're going to have to see how substantive that is. They've agreed to that before back in 2018, and it's not clear how robust that enforcement is going to be. I think that it would be an easy win, honestly, for China to do something about that. These are chemicals that are illegal in China, in fact. But if they don't do it, that's a sign that this may not be a good faith agreement.

GROSS: When Biden said that they must ensure that competition does not veer into conflict, President Xi acknowledged that a conflict would have, quote, "unbearable consequences." But he challenged the idea of a, quote, "competition," saying it cannot solve the problems facing China and the United States. Xi said planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed. That sounded positive to me, but I think you have a different interpretation?

OSNOS: It is positive on the surface. It's a good thing to imagine the idea that these two countries can coexist. That's certainly the goal. But it also is a pretty revealing indicator of something, which is that Xi Jinping fundamentally rejects this framework of competition. He believes that as long as the United States perceives these two countries as competitors, that that is ultimately a pathway towards confrontation. You know, later in the evening, actually, after he had met with Biden, he gave a speech to a group of business leaders in which he said that the big question before us is, are we adversaries or are we partners? Now, I will tell you Biden will tell you that's a false choice. He will say, no, actually, we're competitors and we have to be honest about that. Let's be blunt.

This was something, Terry, that was very much on my mind as I watched this proceeding over the last day or two, that basically this was kind of blowing away the illusions that have governed a lot of the U.S.-China relationship for decades. I mean, there were times where we'd have huge disagreements, but we would just kind of pretend that we didn't, whether it was ideology or human rights. We're no longer doing that. We're having a more candid, more honest - it's a tough conversation, but I think it's probably something closer to the truth.

GROSS: In a forthcoming piece, you wrote that this is a pretty gentle image of - I know Xi's saying that planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, but it underscored Xi's desire not for a competition, but for America to get out of the way by reducing its role in Taiwan, Ukraine, the South China Sea and the Middle East, and that the U.S. has no intentions of getting out of the way. Why do you interpret Xi's statement that way?

OSNOS: He has said in internal speeches in China that he basically believes that the core of this tension is that the United States will never fully allow China to become a rival power, a near peer in the world. And so on some level, he thinks that the talk of competition is a distraction. He thinks that really the United States - if you really could pin him down, Terry, what he would say is he doesn't think that the United States military belongs in the Indo-Pacific region. He doesn't think that the United States should be commenting and criticizing China's conduct on things like technology development or its relationship with Iran or its support of Russia. He just wants the United States to back off. And the truth is that's not going to happen.

And that's why I think that in some ways, it was quite a revealing moment, because it made crystal clear that these two sides do have a deep, deep disagreement. But they can also find common ground here. I think that's the strange balance that we have to recognize is they were able to reach this agreement on military communication. They agreed to control the production of ingredients in fentanyl. And they made an agreement on reducing climate emissions. All of these things are significant, even if these two sides still have major Disagreements.

GROSS: You know, in terms of Biden being blunt in his talk with President XI, when asked if he still sees Xi as a dictator, Biden responded, well, look, he is. What did you think about when you heard Biden reiterate that Xi is a dictator?

OSNOS: Well, it was certainly not going to be something that's popular with the Chinese. I think there is a degree to which that moment will probably cloud the consequences of the summit to some degree, but it's also nothing new. He has - he's said it before, he reiterated it. And I think it is in the spirit of this new candor. I sometimes think about this relationship as having reached a point when neither one can afford the old, polite niceties that they used to use to disguise their points of disagreement.

Joe Biden really does think that Xi Jinping is a dictator. And he thinks that the communist system deprives people of their liberties, and he's entitled to that opinion. Xi Jinping would say that he thinks that the American side is chaotic and prone to the failings of democracy. So if they can accept that disagreement, that actually gives them a basis to move forward.

GROSS: How much progress did they make on climate talks?

OSNOS: It's meaningful. Basically, they agreed to say that they will replace fossil fuel production by tripling the role of renewable energy. I don't think this is a game changer, but without these two countries backing that kind of pledge, it's impossible for the world to make the kind of progress it needs on climate change. So, you know, I put it really under the category of proof of concept that these two countries can still find a way to sign on the dotted line, even as they're competing pretty fiercely in other domains.

GROSS: How long have Biden and Xi known each other? What has the relationship been like over the years?

OSNOS: It goes back a long way. It's unusually robust in that way. They first met in 2011, when they were both vice presidents and Biden came to Beijing. I remember I was there at the time, living there, working for The New Yorker. And Biden was there to suss out this up-and-coming guy named Xi Jinping. And they spent a long time together. They traveled across the country. And then Xi Jinping came to the United States. And they traveled in the U.S. as well. They went to a Lakers game in LA. And all of this was for the purpose of the U.S. getting a close look at this person. And Biden came out of it, and he said to his advisers at the time, this guy doesn't have a Democratic bone in his body. And he also said, but I think we have our hands full with this man. And in some ways, that was a preview of the complex relationship they have now.

GROSS: Well, Evan, I want to talk with you about your article in The New Yorker, "China's Age Of Malaise" and how Xi has become increasingly authoritarian, but first we have to take a short break. So if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, who's been writing about China since 2005. He was based in Beijing from 2005 to 2013 and has continued to write about China. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His recent article about China is called "China's Age Of Malaise," and we're going to talk about that now. China and the U.S. are kind of interdependent in a lot of ways. So where does that interdependency still exist in this time of increased separation of China and the U.S.?

OSNOS: Yeah. I think this is something that's easy for us to forget these days. I mean, the truth is, even now, with all of the tensions in the relationship, and we're five years into a trade war in which you had both sides putting tariffs on the vast range of goods coming across the Pacific, even so, when you go into a store today in the United States, there's a pretty high probability that you're buying something that was made in China. And, you know, tremendous numbers of American companies still expect that they will build their products on Chinese soil and sell to Chinese consumers. I mean, if you take Apple as an obvious example, they're, you know, building - the vast majority of their products still depend on the Chinese supply chain. And, of course, they are expecting to continue selling into China for years to come.

So that's happening in the background that at the same time, there is this much more overt awareness that we're in a competition. You know, the Biden administration frames it quite bluntly. They say we're now in a long-range competition that is going to be tough, it's going to be contested, it's going to be acrimonious at times, but that comes down to this - what might sound like a subtle distinction, but an important one, which is that the administration says they wanted - they don't want to decouple from China, meaning pull these two countries apart economically entirely. They don't imagine we're going to pull all of our factories out of China. What they want to do is de-risk, which is a, you know, it's a bit of diplomatic jargon that means basically they want to eliminate the ways in which the U.S. is vulnerable to Chinese manipulation.

So they don't want to have companies in China that are of really critical importance to the U.S., whether it's in artificial intelligence or even things like public health. I think the COVID moment crystallized for a lot of American politicians the idea that if we were getting all of our masks and a lot of pharmaceuticals from China, that was a form of risk. And what they're trying to do is get rid of that level of risk without fundamentally injuring and ultimately ending the economic interdependence that has helped Americans over the years.

GROSS: I want to ask you about China's role in the war in Ukraine. It's been very ambiguous. They're publicly kind of neutral. At the same time, like, Xi has said that his best and closest friend is Vladimir Putin. China and Russia are close allies. So what do you know about what's really going on in China in terms of Xi's thinking about the war in Ukraine?

OSNOS: Right before the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed this historic partnership agreement. They - it was really something that they hadn't done before. Historically, Russia and China have a lot of tension. You know, even though they were close during the Cold War because they were both Communist regimes, there's always been a lot of disagreements between them. They have a large land border. They actually have fought clashes over the years back during the Cold War. And what's been fascinating and sort of distressing for American officials to watch is that over the course of the last decade as Xi Jinping's been in power, he has built this closer relationship with Vladimir Putin. They've met about 42 times in total. He's met with Putin more than any other leader.

And that became really important during the war in Ukraine, because at a time when the rest of the world, led by the United States, was trying to isolate Russia economically and, you know, bring sanctions against them that would cut off their financial system or make it hard for them to maintain their economic vitality, China was filling in that void. And so during this period, China has continued to trade - in fact, it has radically expanded its trade with Russia. It's buying a huge amount of Russian energy at very good prices. This has been a huge point of contention with the United States because, as you can imagine, the Biden administration is saying to China, if not for you, this war in Ukraine might not be able to continue. And China says, well, that's - as far as we're concerned, we're not sending them huge amounts of weaponry, which is technically true, but they are propping up the Putin government in a really important way. And I think it is a fair reading to say that without China's support, Russia would find this impossible.

GROSS: And in terms of what China gets out of this, China buys oil from Russia.

OSNOS: That's right. China is buying a huge amount of oil from Russia, which is both important for China's economy - it's very important for Russia's economy - but it also gives China an alternative source of critical energy supplies that do not depend on an increasingly turbulent Middle East. The broader context for this is that it's - essentially, China and Russia have been building out, over the course of the war in Ukraine, an alternative set of economic and political structures that allow each of them to operate beyond the reach of American control as much as possible. And there are other countries involved in important ways. I mean, many of the countries that could be involved in the sanctions regime are not. And that's partly because they are, in a sense, hedging. You know, there really is a feeling that China is seeking to establish itself as the de facto leader of the global South and that means partly standing up against what the United States and its allies are doing to support Ukraine.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here. Let me reintroduce you.

My guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "China's Age Of Malaise." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "RISING MIND")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "China's Age Of Malaise," and it's based in part on his recent trip to China. He was there in August. The article is about how President Xi Jinping has become increasingly authoritarian. China's economic boom has ended and the economy has slowed. Political leaders and entrepreneurs who Xi sees as a threat have been disappeared. Xi has tightened controls on pop culture and social media. Hundreds of thousands of people have left China, more are trying to leave. Evan Osnos lived in Beijing and reported from China from 2005 to 2013.

So now that we've talked about Ukraine, we should talk about a possible war. Taiwan considers itself to be self-governing, China considers Taiwan to be under Chinese rule. Elections are coming up in Taiwan in January. If China decides at any point to attack Taiwan, then - you know, as we said before, you know, China is aligned with Russia and Iran. I don't know what Russia and Iran would do. And the United States, you know, Joe Biden has promised to defend Taiwan if China attacks it. So what could possibly go wrong there?

OSNOS: Yeah, it does feel as if all of these have become stitched together. But I actually think that Taiwan is in some ways a bit of an issue apart, because it's important to point out that at this point, there is a tremendous amount of concern about the possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. They have upgraded their rhetoric around it. They are doing drills and military exercises very close to Taiwan territory. And yet at the same time, there is a view - and this is really the bottom-line view among the members of the American intelligence community and the Biden administration - where they say that they don't actually think that Beijing is preparing to attack Taiwan.

I know that gets lost sometimes in our discussions in this - in Washington. But at this point, the intelligence community believes that China has not yet decided whether it would attack Taiwan, and it doesn't yet know if it has the capability to do so. Those are really important details when it comes to trying to assess how urgent of a problem this is. And that's not just because we're concerned about the well-being of the Taiwanese people, but also because it enters into the strategic calculations, because if the United States in some ways begins to behave as if it believes that an attack on Taiwan is imminent and therefore takes steps to try to prevent China from being able to do so in the very short term, the fear is that that could actually hasten the result we don't want, that China would say, well, this is our moment - it's now or never - and would end up accelerating a plan that it might not have actually arrived at anyway.

GROSS: Xi Jinping has become a very autocratic ruler and has become more autocratic than his predecessors since Tiananmen Square, the crackdown on dissidents in 1989. So what are some of the things he's done to become more autocratic?

OSNOS: Well, if you take as an example something as simple as where you buy your books in China - I mean, I often will kind of gauge a place and its openness and the vitality of its cultural life by going to the bookstore. And if you go to a bookstore in China today, many of the independent outlets, the stores that used to be able to get books from overseas and sell a more kind of vibrant array of things, they've been shut down, actually. It's very hard to find places that are not, in effect, selling government publications. And in a way, he's also filled more of the public space with his own words, I mean, just as a practical fact. He's published - or should I say, put his name on 11 books to come out so far this year, I mean, it's a - in a way. He's not writing those himself, but these are collections of his speeches.

They are a demonstration of this desire to try to set in much more explicit terms the content of cultural and political and intellectual life in China. And that's a huge change, really, from where it was a decade ago, before he came to power. China has been an authoritarian country, let's be clear, since at least 1949, when the Communist Party came to power. But throughout that period, there's been this constant fluctuation between control and openness. And underlying that has always been this idea that the government would say to people, all right, we'll give you a certain degree of openness or autonomy in your private lives and your business lives if you give us political loyalty. And that room has shrunk, the room for that openness and autonomy. And that's what people describe when you talk to them, and that's what frustrates them.

GROSS: For many years, China's policy was the one child policy. Families were allowed to have one child because - why was that? Give us the short version of why they had that policy.

OSNOS: It was basically because they looked out at the future and they said, well, we're a huge country and we're not going to be able to feed everybody if everybody continues to have a lot of kids. This was one of Mao Zedong's ideas. And so his solution was to create this very rigid rule and say, most people can only have one child.

GROSS: And now the government has reversed that policy. There are government incentives to marry early and to have many children or, you know, at least more than one. So what's behind that reversal? And this is under President Xi.

OSNOS: That's right. I mean, this is an example of the law of unintended consequences, that in some ways, after Mao Zedong imposed this rule that restricted most people to one child, they actually - it had this radical distortion on the population trajectory of the country to the point that all of a sudden, China looked around about a decade or two ago and said, wait a second, we're not going to have enough workers to be able to support all the retirees that we have because we haven't been producing enough children. And so, in a way - and this is a very Leninist thing to do - they more or less said, OK, now throw the train into reverse and tell everybody that it's time to - suddenly you can have two children. Later, they expanded it to say you can have three children. And at the same time, they've suddenly said, OK, now it's your patriotic responsibility to have kids. And people don't like it. They don't respond well to it.

I mean, this is - probably the single most astonishing statistic about China today is that since 2016, the birthrate has fallen by more than half, which is something you very rarely see in a country. It only happens really in places at war or countries that are going through dramatic political disturbances, like the breakup of Yugoslavia and - or the breakup of the Soviet Union. And China is going through this in a way. As one scholar put it to me, he says, it's a kind of internalized civil disobedience, this way in which people are saying, I'm not going to do what you tell me to do when it comes to having more children. And in fact, it's an expression of a kind of malaise.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like young people don't want to have a lot of children. They don't even necessarily want to get married.

OSNOS: Yeah. They are - there is a movement in China away from some of the traditional structures and measures of success and achievement. Over the last generation, you know, most people set out to try to find a mate, buy a house, buy a car, settle down, have a child. That was the very conventional standard of success in China. And a lot of young people have said, well, on the one hand, that's too expensive. The property market got too pricey. It was very hard to buy an apartment. And at the same time, particularly women in China came to see this as a bit of a false bargain, that they were being told that this was the option for them. But actually, China's - on measures of gender equality, China has been moving backward. There, for instance, are no women in the Politburo right now for the first time in decades.

And I think there is a real feeling that Chinese women particularly have said, this is a way in which I can register my discontent is by saying, no, I'm going to put marriage on hold. I'm going to put having kids on hold. And that's one of the reasons why paying attention to these kinds of measurements offer a real perspective into the mood in China in a way that people are never willing to talk about ordinarily to the public, because it's too sensitive. You won't tell - you don't tell a pollster - or you oftentimes won't tell a journalist you don't know that you're really feeling frustrated, but it shows up in measures of marriage and childbearing.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "China's Age Of Malaise," and it's based in part on his recent trip to China. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISOTOPE 217'S "AUDIO BOXING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "China's Age Of Malaise." He reported from Beijing and lived in China from 2005 to 2013, and his new article is based in part on his recent trip to China.

So there are more limits on social media now and what you can say. Would you describe some of the recent restrictions?

OSNOS: There's a whole realm of things you're not allowed to talk about. At one point, there was an interesting leak from a social media company of all of the nicknames for Xi Jinping that they ban, that they screen out from ever appearing online. You know, people call him the Emperor or Caesar, or they compare him to Winnie the Pooh, which has been a nickname that apparently the system really doesn't like. And so there's more than 500 of these nicknames that have been blocked on any given day.

And for a long time, you know, the Chinese social media system has always been censored. But the question, the key question is, how much gets through? How much are people able to engage in debate? And over time, that world of the censored realm of discussion has just expanded. I'll give you a prime example. A couple of years ago, a young worker posted online that he was, as he put it, lying flat. He didn't want to - he couldn't bring himself to try to find a job anymore. It was a period of very high unemployment. And that post ignited.

He'd coined this concept of lying flat, and many other young people agreed with him and felt some kinship with him, and they started to form little discussion groups about calling themselves the lying flat-ists. And the government said we can't allow this to grow. It's too uncertain. We don't control it. We don't know what it's about. So they blocked it. They banned it. Eventually, people began to carve out a little bit of space to talk about it again. But that kind of thing, this, you know, even a discussion about your frustrations with unemployment, that's become heavily controlled in a way that it wasn't a decade ago.

GROSS: Well, because of the restrictions and because of the authoritarian government, some companies are moving to other places, including Singapore. And the owners of TikTok bought property in Singapore. So what's happening in Singapore - like, what companies, what people are moving to Singapore, where there might be more freedom, though Singapore isn't exactly a democracy?

OSNOS: Yeah. It's a really interesting development that's been going on just below the surface. It's the kind of issue that these Chinese entrepreneurs don't like to talk about very publicly because they don't want to inflame the government and make it angry. But at the same time, you see that they have, in some cases, begun to move their base of operations, or more often, they're moving their capital. They're actually moving the money that they have personally accumulated. They're moving it offshore. They're moving it to Singapore because they're afraid that the Chinese government is going to come one day and say, all right, we need money. We're going to take this from you.

So in Singapore, the local press has kept a running tally of some prominent Chinese entrepreneurs who have been spending more time there. Take somebody like Zhang Yiming, who's the founder of the parent company for TikTok, or there's somebody named Liang Xinjun, who founded Fosun, which is a big conglomerate in China, and it was under pressure from the government to sell off some of its assets.

And a lot of these people are turning up in Singapore very quietly and trying to establish a safe haven for themselves, a kind of bolthole because they've looked at the experience of people like Jack Ma and they've said, well, it's not clear to us that we're safe on Chinese soil. But at the same time, they don't want to talk that much about it. You see it in the statistics. I mean, it's quite striking, actually. There was - a consultancy calculated that at least 10,000 of China's richest people have moved abroad over the course of the last year, because they're trying to keep themselves safe from the reach of the government.

GROSS: You could tell by looking at the streets in China that the economic boom was over. How could you tell?

OSNOS: It's subtle, but if you know what it was before, it's absolutely unmistakable. There was a period when there were constantly new skyscrapers going up in China. I mean, that was - they were actually sort of competing among Chinese cities to say who could put up the tallest buildings in the world. And that period has slowed down dramatically, particularly among these really tall buildings. I mean, that has actually come to a halt. China has imposed rules over the last few years to try to prevent more money going into that kind of building.

But even in subtler ways, as you look around, you see that people are being cautious. They're sitting on their money. There was this period when everybody you met in China was out there saving up and buying an apartment. That was the core of the economic model was this huge property boom. And property developers have been running out of money as the economy slows. And there are buildings that you can see in places where you have these kind of unfinished concrete shells of buildings that people have already paid for. In some cases, they pour their life savings into it. But then the developer doesn't have the cash to finish it. And these have become these kinds of totems of China's economic slowdown.

GROSS: And you also write about how there's fewer cafes and clubs. Why is that?

OSNOS: That's been really important. And I think it gets to this larger sense of slow down. I mean, oftentimes the stagnation is not economic so much as it is cultural and aesthetic and personal. I mean, people got into the idea that you could open up a little cafe or a little gallery in the back alleys of Beijing or Shanghai, and that that was a way of, you know, carving out some creative life. That's where people would get together, and, you know, they would - that was a lot of new film and music and ideas that were coming out of those places. And over the course of the last decade, Xi Jinping has cracked down on that realm of improvised culture, of sort of ungoverned culture. Sometimes they do it because they say we need to bring order to the city. And in other cases, they say, no, these are unregistered, they're unofficial, so they can't exist.

So you get - you might get some of these that pop up in their place, but the core vitality, that has really gone away from a lot of this cultural life that was assumed to be growing ever more open and expansive. I think, Terry, at the core of what we're talking about is a turnaround. There was an assumption to - in a lot of Chinese life that things were going to get more open over time as this century moved along. And what people are coming to terms with is actually that period has stalled and has, in fact, gone into reverse. People use a Chinese expression that means throwing the car into reverse to describe how it feels to have the country becoming more authoritarian, not less, over time.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "China's Age Of Malaise." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "China's Age Of Malaise," and it's based in part on his recent trip to China. He reported from China from 2005 to 2013 and has written extensively about it.

You know, in terms of popular culture in China, comics now have to get their jokes approved by the government. And governments, especially authoritarian governments, are famous for their sense of humor. What - has comedy become really bland?

OSNOS: It has. Actually, I was talking to a comedian not too long ago in China who said that this process of submitting your jokes in advance has become, in itself, a sort of farce, because you have to make a video of yourself performing your joke, and then it goes to some ministry of culture. And as he put it, those people are really not funny. And as a result, if you break the rules, if you then improvise - there was a case earlier this year of a comedian who made up a joke on the fly. He was talking about his dogs chasing after a squirrel. And he used this military slogan that is on posters all over the place - fight well and excel. And he was punished for it, actually.

He was prevented from performing. He was forced to apologize. And the company that employed him was fined $2 million. So there's cases like that in some small way happening everywhere all the time. And that has a really frustrating effect for people at a time when they're trying to figure out ways of being more creative and competitive with the rest of the world.

GROSS: So we have new restrictions on sounds like just about everything, you know, on social media, on pop culture, on businesses, you know, entrepreneurs are being punished. And Xi has his own loyalists in the military and in government. And people who aren't loyal - they're being punished, too. So there must be a lot of disillusionment with Xi and his government now in China. And add to that the COVID restrictions, which were so harsh, people were confined to their homes for two months at a time. And then when the pandemic was perceived to be largely over, then, like - what? - a million people caught COVID in the period of just a few weeks because it spread that rapidly after all the lockdowns.

OSNOS: Yeah. This is - the dynamic that you're capturing I think is really important, which is that - I think all of us who went through the COVID pandemic in whatever countries we were in - we experienced a sense of frustration and despair. I mean, we know that full range of emotions. What was distinctive about it in China was that it felt as if it was capricious. The government used this policy, known as the zero-COVID policy, which was very effective at some points in preventing people from getting sick and from dying. But there was a quality of arbitrariness that - you would find out just a few hours before that your whole neighborhood or, in the case of Shanghai, most of the city was locked down for two months. People couldn't go outside, and they were running out of food and running out of medicine. And the feeling was, here we are in the most cosmopolitan city in China. And it turns out that all of the work and the effort and the creativity that I've expended over the course of the last 25 years really doesn't matter when it collides with the blunt force of state power.

And for a lot of people, as one person said to me, that was shattering. That discovery. It felt like a lot of the assumptions people had were wrong. And one of the words that you hear a lot from people in China today is tuisang, which means disheartened. And I think that's a very hard thing to fix quickly. It's possible. You certainly can. But Xi Jinping and his peers - he's now surrounded himself with people who agree with him. They've made a big bet, and it's not necessarily the right bet. In fact, I think you could argue that it's beginning to blow back against them, that the way to protect themselves and to protect China's future is by clamping down as much as possible on things beyond your control. And that may not be right.

GROSS: So to sum up, how worried are you about the future of the world right now? - because, like, you're - included in the subtitle of your article about China's current malaise is, like, what does this mean for the world? The world isn't in great shape right now. So, you know, between Ukraine and the Middle East and Taiwan, like, what's your threat level at?

OSNOS: Well, I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't worried, Terry. I think anybody who's paying attention to what's happening feels this tremendous sense of fragility and this idea that some of the things that we assumed to be true are not true. Take China as an example. I mean, this feeling that it was inexorably marching towards - certainly not democracy - nobody pretended that was the case. But that it was just going to become more open - that's not turned out to be true. And that is a huge change from where the century was at its origin a couple of decades ago.

But I will tell you one thing that gives me great confidence. I mean, this is a fact that I have to be reminded of sometimes, which is that, you know, at a time like this, when it feels a little bit like everything is kind of coming apart - that there are people in all kinds of places in our country, in the Middle East, in - certainly in Ukraine and in China who are standing up for the idea of individual dignity and personal dignity and are asking to be heard and are kind of unwilling to be cowed by force and by very terrifying situations. And I do take inspiration from that. I take inspiration from people who are willing to stand up and say that they demand to be heard and protected. And it's our job, I think, ultimately to try to amplify those voices.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. It's always great to talk with you.

OSNOS: Oh, you're welcome, Terry. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his article "China's Age Of Malaise" is published. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Brian Stelter, whose new book is about Fox News, or with Courtney B. Vance and psychologist Dr. Robin Smith about the urgent mental health crisis among Black men and boys, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you want to read about what's happening behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our free newsletter. You'll find a link at whyy.org/freshair.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS' "UNTIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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