It’s so easy to be like Tom Friedman and get totally dazzled by the Beijing airport and the Shanghai skyline and the fast railway and revamped subway systems and the spirit of irrepressible optimism that seems to pervade both cities. I was dazzled by it too, and still am. I love it there. And this spirit of optimism isn’t limited to just two cities. I felt it in Chengdu and Kunming, in Xi’an and Guangzhou.
But as I’ve mentioned before, for the past year I’ve been editing an executive summary of weekly business, manufacturing and financial news from China, and I’ve been amazed at the intensity and speed of the current slowdown. There is a poignant story in the NYT you should read about a visiting professor in Chongqing that reveals the misery this slowdown, coupled with the ineptitude and corruption of an uncaring government, is inflicting in people we’re not likely to meet or know much about.
I wanted to find out what was on the minds of ordinary people. What did they talk to one another about? So in 2007, with permission of the authorities, I put up billboards featuring images of trees, like the “wish trees” in Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian temples, where people tie notes about their private desires to the branches, hoping that the wind will blow their prayers to heaven. Chongqing residents stuck hundreds of their leaf-shaped notes onto the branches of my “trees.”
Their wishes and worries were candid, heartfelt and startling: people had lost their optimism and were yearning for security and freedom from anxiety. Income is a primary worry for those who have lost their jobs or land. Pensions and social welfare payments are almost nonexistent. People struggle to pay for education. They can’t afford medical treatment; clinics and hospitals require patients to pay cash in advance. A serious illness can spell financial ruin for an entire family.
China’s one-child policy has turned family life from a source of solace to a font of anxiety. Parents now get just one chance for a child to succeed and to support them in their old age. Single children carry an unbearable burden of parental and grandparental expectations.
In sum, a spiritual hunger has taken hold even as physical hunger has receded. Anxiety and resentment are turning people inward; the Chinese are being consumed by anomie, a listless sense that life has little meaning.
Of course, it depends on how you define “the Chinese.” I know plenty of yuppie Chinese who harbor little anxiety or resentment as they ride the wave of a still vibrant, if slowing, economy. But they are by no means the majority. For China’s ordinary people life has always been hard and they’ve had to eat their fair share of bitterness, but the economic engine provided hope. As factories close and the ripple effects of unemployment and desperation spread, that hope is and will be in increasingly short supply. This is not unique to China; we’ve seen some of the same here in the US and throughout much of Europe, but in the West there is at least some semblance of a safety net.
The article ends as it began, with gloom.
China’s export-led boom is fading. Potential economic stimuli might backfire and overwhelm state-owned banks with bad loans. Crony capitalism and corruption are endemic. Extremes of wealth and poverty, as well as multitudes of public grievances against officialdom, are all continuously fueling social discontent.
The anxieties highlighted on my wish trees — the one-child policy, urban migration, health care, educational costs and unemployment — are intractable.
Beijing needs to become more comfortable with decentralizing power, but local government is too often corrupt and incompetent. And at the top, the Communist Party is divided. Its highest priority is the survival of the one-party system, and for now, it seems to have decided that authoritarianism is the best bet. The remaining options for ordinary people are despair or dissent.
I think we’re seeing a lot of both at the moment, and should expect to see much more. And again, I believe this applies to other countries like Spain and Greece and Portugal and Italy as well. Being reminded of what’s happening in China, however, in places we don’t hear about so much, is particularly distressing. Can the government buy it’s way out of this one?
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.