SHANGHAI. The Shanghai subway system is the largest in the world. It carries 10 million people a day over 588 kilometers of track to 364 stations under the surface of this teeming city. The stations are clean. The riders are well dressed and they gab with friends typing Chinese characters onto smartphones ridiculously fast. Given what worse things can happen in the world, the subways of Shanghai seem the picture of a well-ordered, prosperous and contented society.

But there are countervailing currents under the surface, an undertow of anxiety.

For the past generation, the Chinese middle class has engaged in vibrant web chatter on thousands of micro blogs called weibo, commenting on pop stars, air and water and ground pollution, food scares, real estate bubbles, natural disasters and man-made ones, and incompetent or dishonest low- ranking officials. But that freedom is now ebbing away.

In the five years since President Xi took power, the government has tightened its surveillance of this great Chinese conversation. Every mobile phone must now be cross-registered against the user’s national ID. Anonymous blogging is punished. It is increasingly difficult for educated Chinese to use technical means to breach the “Great Firewall of China” in order to access foreign Internet sites. In this game of cat and mouse, the citizen mice may have run rampant for years, but now the government cat is winning. 

Jim Fallows, a savvy observer of China, writes in The Atlantic this month: “China is much more controlled and repressive than the China of five years ago…. Day by day, life on the streets in the Chinese cities I’ve recently visited seems as free form and commerce-minded as ever. But national politics matter more than they have in many years, and the political climate is darkening.”

Government officials, and high-ranking business people who also belong to the Party, all hope to evade the trawling nets of the current anti-corruption campaign. An official I met last year said she had been asked to inform on her colleagues, and had refused, and been forced into early retirement. She has converted to Buddhism.

Orville Schell, a scholar of modern China for decades, wrote in The New York Review of Books this year: “educated Chinese professionals express growing alarm over their country’s future…. Independent-minded researchers at think tanks and outspoken professors at universities worry about the ‘chilling effect’ of President Xi’s policies on academic life…. Feminist activists demonstrating against sexual harassment have been arrested for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’ while human rights lawyers have been swept up in a mass wave of arrests for ‘creating public disorder,’ and even for ‘subverting state power.’ It is hardly surprising that Chinese have started whispering about a new ‘climate of fear’.”

In my own experience, I don’t know of any professional Chinese couple who has not contemplated emigrating from China, or at least considered negotiating the logistical challenges of giving birth to a child in the U.S. or Canada, in the hope of having an emergency exit from their own society if conditions for a decent life in China deteriorate in the future.

Against that background, I was intrigued to receive on my phone in Shanghai several weeks ago a weibo announcement of Tendency Talks, a symposium organized by a bookstore located underground at the Shanghai Library station of the Number 10 subway line. It advertised a colloquium, to be held in the back room of the bookstore, where three Chinese university professors would discuss “The World and America in the Trump Era.” When I arrived, some hundred people (I was the only non-Chinese) sat on cheap chairs surrounded by bookshelves filled with Chinese translations of Thoreau and Churchill, and biographies of Jackie Robinson and Willy Brandt, and copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It made me think of those lines of Auden, imagining the possible resurgence of free intellectual life after a flood of violent suppression: But when the waters make retreat/And through the black mud first the wheat/In shy green stalks appears.

The same poem bears, though, this prophesy: Soon, soon, through dykes of our content/The crumpling flood will force a rent/And, taller than a tree,/Hold sudden death before our eyes/Whose river dreams long hid the size/And vigors of the sea.

But for two hours that day, underground, people at a bookstore argued and laughed and interrupted each other and alluded to problems in China while discussing the American elections. You could feel their invigoration in speaking their minds. The bookstore’s motto is “independent cultural standpoints and free expression of thought.” The bookstore also organizes evenings of Japanese movies, and classical guitar, and jazz.

The people in the underground bookstore are earnest and courageous and, for the time being, tolerated.