Following the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016, there was some discussion in the United States of the phenomenon of “political depression,” particularly among those Americans described as liberal. The expression was also applied in other contexts, referring to a sense of cynicism and burnout in liberal movements and societies worldwide.
In 2017, clinical psychologist Robert Lusson wrote in the Huffington Post that political depression “may include a period of bereavement where one mourns the death of the body politic,” and that while there is “a melancholy that sets in for older adults who have spent a lifetime building a world on a foundation that appears to have crumbled,” young people may feel a sense of hopelessness about ambition in any form.
In Chinese, “political depression”— zhèngzhì yìyù (政治抑郁), or zhèngzhìxìng yìyù (政治性抑郁) — was discussed initially in the media around 2020 as a character of politics outside of China. In February 2020, just as the pandemic was taking shape globally, a post at The Paper (澎湃) discussed political depression generally as a health issue, drawing on material from the West.
But the political, social, and economic frustrations of the Xi era, most painfully brought home by the severe restrictions of the leadership’s “zero Covid” policy — unremitting through 2022 as much of the world has transitioned to hybrid or relaxed approaches — soon turned the notion of political depression to domestic issues and emotions.
In late March 2022, positive Covid cases in Shanghai prompted local leaders to apply varying quarantine policies in the east and west of the city, with stay-at-home orders initially starting in the east. As residents prepared for a possible lockdown, there was a rush for food and supplies. The lack of consistency in the response brought ridicule on the internet and social media. As frustration over Covid policies simmered, a post on the Netease portal offered the following definition of political depression: “Public affairs, news, and politics bring about a great sense of powerlessness and loneliness, leaving people feeling constantly depressed or irritable most of the time, with thoughts and feelings of sadness, emptiness or despair.”
One post that spring on WeChat reflected:
I never thought that after two years, we in Shanghai can still only open the window and feel the spring breeze of 2022. Every day, we are exposed in the media to all kinds of depressing news, and even to those underclass anxieties that we have never felt before, and it just keeps spreading. Mixed in with the anxiety are all kinds of structural evils and injustices, and individual disasters are being played out all the time. We begin to feel that we have lost control of our destiny, and political depression is creeping in among the people.
Another depressing story in March 2022, deepened by the fog of news control and propaganda, was the tragic crash of China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 on March 21 near the city of Wuzhou in Guangxi. This air disaster, China’s worst since 2010, prompted this reflection and others on political depression.
By summer, observers noted that political depression had become a hot topic on Chinese social media. Another WeChat post summed up the concept as “the kind of general powerlessness and depression that pervades the hearts and minds of society.” The same WeChat account also shared a translation of Lusson’s 2017 article as part of a series on political depression.
Political depression remains a sensitive term for Party and commercial newspapers in China and generally does not appear. On online news websites, references are generally to societies outside of China — like this piece at QQ.com in September 2022 looking at “hard times” in the UK, or this reference back in May to politics in South Korea in 2016.
On social media, however, the term is more frequently used to describe the sense of helplessness inside China as the bad news continues to arrive, and as Chinese citizens continue to live under the uncertainty of lockdown politics.
“Ordinary depression I’m guessing can be treated, but political depression in my view is a chronic disease, terminal, and if you get it, you must medicate for your entire life to avoid death,” one user wrote on Weibo in September 2022. “I’m politically depressed,” another wrote on October 4, 2022. “Damnit! I despise this ***** world!”