Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.
Meiyan’s smartwatch vibrated, and she winced. Lately, most of her messages had been from her parents – and they had all been variations on a theme. She looked down, and sure enough, it was from her mother: “Still alone?!”
In their last exchange, her mother had not-so-subtly asked if Meiyan was bringing someone home to meet the family at Spring Festival this year. Meiyan’s answer had been curt (“No”) but not curt enough to dissuade some light paternal nagging.
It wasn’t enough that she had her parents clamoring for her to marry – she also got bombarded with the targeted government messages that filled her social media pages. Every time she logged in, she was treated with a picture of a lonely-looking man or a happy, smiling couple doting on a baby and a reminder that her country was counting on her to “help rejuvenate China.” As though it was her fault that a quarter of Chinese men couldn’t find wives. Still, the ads seemed to think it was her duty to help rectify the problem. All her single, 30-ish female friends reported getting them too – while men usually just saw ads for the latest sales on Taobao (her married female friends got even more targeted ads suggesting they have children).
How ironic that it was her patriotic duty to marry and have children, Meiyan thought testily, given that the government had effectively sabotaged her best chance at it. Back in 2022, when she’d still been in college, Meiyan had followed stories of the Nansha Crisis with a bit too much interest – at least, that’s what she assumed, as the next month her social credit rating had dropped by 20 points. She’d been mortified – the score, tied to her government ID, appeared at the top of every social media profile she had (which, of course, were all registered using the same ID). Her boyfriend at the time, who was applying for membership in the Chinese Communist Party, had broken up with her over it.
“Sorry,” he’d said, “but it’s so difficult to get in, I can’t take any chances.” Party membership was, after all, the only sure-fire way to move up through the ranks, no matter what career you chose.
Looking back, Meiyan still kicked herself over it. She’d been young and careless, and clicked on one too many overseas websites hosting conspiracy theories. What really did the damage, Meiyan thought, was probably not her vague sense that the media narrative – that a Filipino patrol ship had attacked a Chinese fishing vessel – didn’t hold water. Plenty of her friends at the time had openly repeated rumors that the fishing boat had in fact sought out the conflict, to provide an impetus for the Chinese takeover of the other Philippine-held features. In fact, many people had been supportive of the move, praising the fishing captain for his bravery and patriotism. About time we got our stolen land back, many said. The freeze on the disputes, reached at an ASEAN meeting in 2020, had never been popular in China.
Plus, the whole thing had ended well, viewed from hindsight. At the time, there’d been a lot of bluster and talk of economic sanctions – and she remembered having a hard time finding a job after graduating thanks to the lingering recession (and, she though sourly, that stupid social credit rating). But ultimately China had gotten what it wanted – it had occupied a few more reefs after some minor skirmishes, and the Philippines had more or less accepted the move. Not that Manila had had much choice, she thought, with a flare of pride – facing the mighty Chinese Navy, and the threat of a trade stoppage from the 14 countries that had signed the Silk Road Economic Agreement with China, the Philippines really wasn’t up to facing off against China in a conflict — even with backing from the United States.
Thinking that China might have purposefully started the Nansha Crisis wasn’t what set Meiyan apart. No, what had damaged her social credit rating had to have been her interest in the wild theory that President Xi Jinping himself had orchestrated the event in order to stay in power. Of course he couldn’t be expected to step down in 2022, when China was facing a potential war with the United States – although the U.S. showed little inclination of stepping in, being absorbed at the time with the war in Syria.
Eight years later, in 2030, Xi was still China’s Core Leader.
The timing had all seemed a bit too convenient to Meiyan’s younger self, and she’d read all the rumors – and taken the hit for it. Even today, after eight years of avoiding any political controversy online (and un-friending those who didn’t), her score was still five points lower than the peers she was competing with – for jobs or for desirable boyfriends.
Her smartwatch vibrated again, but Meiyan sighed and avoided the temptation to look this time. She settled back into her train seat, wishing they hadn’t upgraded the route to her hometown to an ultra-high-speed train. She was going to get home far too soon.
At least there was one thing to look forward to: this year’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala would include a special greeting from Mars, where five Chinese taikonauts had landed a few days earlier. A thought occurred: maybe sharing her excitement and pride over the landing on Wechat and Tencent yet again would help make up another point on her social credit rating.
With that, she turned back to her watch.
Shannon Tiezzi is managing editor at The Diplomat magazine.
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