“What keeps the Chinese up at night”

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?

The Discussion: 12 Comments

Christianity is a pretty useless doctrine, but reaping what you sow has a certain ring on truth to it, at least from an historians perspective.

All I can can to the PRC leadership – Enjoy.

No, that’s a bit of a restricted take on the op ed.

More than likely society, culture and politics are in perfect accord.

September 11, 2012 @ 4:52 am | Comment

I haven’t spent as much time as you in china, but i’m an old property finance dog and every time i have been to china i see the same empty apartment blocks empty and they scream “problem”. Here in australia in the mining industry in which i work the fall in commodity prices plus the number of deals with chinese partners that have fallen over due to lack of funds from the chinese is constantly talked about. The “mining boom” here is over, it was driven by the construction boom in china.

Funny thing is i keep remembering a conference i went to in 2007 where a guy from kpmg was talking about different countries demographics and there economic impacts. At the end he showed everyone two sets of numbers and asked the audience which country would you want to be leader of. It was blind and everyone had picked india and not china….umbeknownst to them.

September 11, 2012 @ 5:30 am | Comment

Funny, reading your extract above reminded me of what my wife said after our last visit to China. Seems the only uni friends of hers that are happy are the ones that are single or childless.

September 11, 2012 @ 5:47 am | Comment

Hey Skippy. Great one. Forward to Craig Emerson et al, who seem to be the last to get the message. Still tons of Gillard/consultancy optimism despite the shedding of jobs in the last two weeks.

I’m holding off on a few projects for awhile yet, when I will be able to hire mining engineers for 5 bucks an hour.

Don’t you just love those BHP Billiton tv ads….all those empowered women doing fulfilling jobs in hard hats. I get seriously aroused.

September 11, 2012 @ 5:47 am | Comment

Thanks for the comment, Skippy. And the irony is, so much of the developed world is still looking to China to save them. Until very recently much of the optimism of the auto industry, for instance, was based on estimated sales in China, which did indeed soar for some years. And now there are too many cars in the dealers’ lots and no sign of any upturn. This applies to nearly all industries that have looked to China for growth. And each decline sends shock waves through the country. I am hoping China can still avoid a hard landing, but I don’t know what its leaders can do to avoid one.

September 11, 2012 @ 6:13 am | Comment

Funnily enough, just read the same line in another article (and in another context, though I dare say it would keep the Chinese awake at night too)
“It is the possibility of what comes next that keeps one awake at night. As Dr Cheng said: “We shouldn’t be afraid of China’s success. We should be much more worried about China’s failure.””

September 11, 2012 @ 6:40 am | Comment

I know of a number of instances where listed companies here have had a deal in progress for a year or two with money flowing and then it stops…the reason given is even though its a legally binding agreement “the person was not authorised!!!! to sign”.

But coming back to king tubby thoughts one of the things I think we all have to realise is how could the government know what to do or what is going on. If the government knew we would all be living in communist russia now.

I think the wests idea that China will save them is just that an idea. China faces the same demographic problems of Germany and Japan without the per person income to easily create a soft landing.

The constantly vacant apartments plus the crazy (until recently) commodity prices have been the things that trouble me the most. These two things just send out red flashing warning signs of asset bubbles. But part of my problem is I only come and go for short stays and I don’t have real in depth knowledge.

The funny thing is I remember when I was working in Indonesia for a few months in 92 that we expats were talking and when I was asked where I thought Indonesia was going. I said “look at the empty department stores selling CD’s for a mans wages for 2 weeks, how long do you think people will put up with that, 5-10 years then what?”. When I was at university I had to do one of those general education classes, I think it was in 1988 and the guy was going on about the free health care system China had which really helped the poor. I thought at the time that sounds great. Now I read your posts richard about living in China, something I have never done, and I feel sorry for their people. They have gained so much but seem to have lost something on the way, how long will the poor single men put up with their lot…5 years 10 then what?

September 11, 2012 @ 7:00 am | Comment

The same kind of warning signs came up in 07-08. The PRC still officially has the equivalent of 3 trillion US dollars in foreign exchange reserves.

September 11, 2012 @ 1:28 pm | Comment

China still has the potential for “eight-percent growth”, in my view – there is potential demand in the highly-developed provinces, and there are investment opportunities (re their savings) in less developed provinces and regions. The crucial question is if this potential can be tapped. China can’t and won’t “save the world”, but it could save itself. That said, this would take a national policy that, rather than toying with jingoism, would live up to its name.

Nothing is as good or bad as first reported. China never had the unlimited potential that our media kept addressing verses to for decades, but it does have potential. And I’m not even talking about the foreign-exchange reserves.

The economy poses big challenges, no doubt. But the political system and its lacking legitimacy is the real problem. If it proves unable to overcome regional interests (the CCP is a brotherhood, rather than a hierarchy), it can’t make use of China’s existing opportunities. That’s a problem, too. And all the while, many Chinese people feel that they are being manipulated, often without being able (or without daring) to discern the manipulative impositions from above, and that adds anger. The more people have been manipulated in the past (and found out about it in the meantime), the keener they feel manipulation in the present tense.

the Chinese are being consumed by anomie, a listless sense that life has little meaning

Richard, your line after that one seems to suggest that you see the problem of such generalizations yourself. Economic progress is one crucial factor in development, but while growth lasted (or continues to last – depending on what comes next), it was only a narcotic for that absence of meaning. What meaning does life have for Indians? For Russians? Or for Greeks?

September 11, 2012 @ 3:10 pm | Comment


“But the political system and its lacking legitimacy is the real problem. If it proves unable to overcome regional interests (the CCP is a brotherhood, rather than a hierarchy), it can’t make use of China’s existing opportunities.”

Unlike other political systems I hesitate to mention, it lacks legitimacy from the inside out, which is one of the two reasons it appears to be a brotherhood (the other being a marvelous predilection for bureaucratic obscurantism). This is likely the product of brotherhood’s historical association with deviance, not because CCP members fail to recognize the *correctness* of centralized nationalism.

I only mention this because I find the relationship between hierarchy and brotherhood fascinating.

September 11, 2012 @ 10:41 pm | Comment

JR, yes, I realize the problems with such generalizations, which is why I was quick to say it certainly does not apply to Chinese across the board. What meaning does life have for anyone. Depends on your outlook on life. For many it’s simply security and hope for the future. Take that away and you have a life without meaning, at least for most of us.

September 11, 2012 @ 11:33 pm | Comment

Tom Friedman – a legend in his own mind. Wow, even Richard feels free to take pot shots at Tommy. How the mighty have fallen.

September 18, 2012 @ 9:19 pm | Comment

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