Grass­roots in­sights into a vast up­heaval

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

FAN is one of China’s 130 mil­lion ‘‘ float­ing peo­ple’’, work­ing in Shang­hai. His wife and two young sons live far away, in ru­ral Hubei prov­ince. ‘‘ It’s no prob­lem,’’ he says, ‘‘ I still go back to see them three or four times a year.’’

His younger brother, Young Fan, also a mi­grant worker, has a six-year-old son who is be­ing brought up by his grand­par­ents be­cause Young Fan’s wife is also work­ing in the city.

‘‘ He’s quite happy, and they look af­ter him well,’’ he says. ‘‘ But, as he talked about him,’’ Dun­can He­witt writes, ‘‘ Young Fan’s eyes were down­cast, and he seemed to be close to tears.’’

China has been on a manic charge to get rich be­fore it gets old. At al­most any cost, it some­times seems. It needs to. As the hard-scrab­ble gen­er­a­tion born in Mao Ze­dong’s pop­u­late-or-per­ish epoch that ended in 1976 makes way for the lit­tle em­per­ors and em­presses of what re­mains in ur­ban China a one-child gen­er­a­tion, the de­mo­graphic im­per­a­tive is driv­ing every­one who can make money to do so.

The ef­fects of the present eco­nomic con­vul­sions in­clude clos­ing some of the fac­to­ries that have been em­ploy­ing mi­grant work­ers, forc­ing them back into un­der-em­ploy­ment in tiny plots of land in China’s farm­ing heart­land. We shall only dis­cover later whether this down­turn is caus­ing the Fan fam­ily and the mil­lions like them to re­think their pri­or­i­ties, to dig even deeper into their great well­springs of pa­tience in their long march to­wards af­flu­ence, or to ques­tion the whole en­ter­prise and re­view the val­ues or lack of them that drive China’s new so­ci­ety.

Many of the ed­u­cated elite, too, are con­fronted by a pro­found dilemma. Im­mense sac­ri­fices are made to push chil­dren into higher ed­u­ca­tion. Yet more than a mil­lion of those who grad­u­ated six months ago in 2008 are still search­ing for jobs.

In time, China’s nar­ra­tive is likely to re­vert to a pat­tern closer to that de­scribed so en­ter­tain­ingly and con­vinc­ingly in Get­ting Rich First: Life in a Chang­ing China , in which de­vel­op­ment and progress re­main the dom­i­nant par­a­digms.

Deng Xiaop­ing pro­nounced that for China to mod­ernise, it would be nec­es­sary to ‘‘ let some peo­ple get rich first’’. He had learned that from Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore, whose ty­coons he ad­mired. He was right, of course. But the cost, as He­witt chron­i­cles here, is the sun­der­ing of Chi­nese so­ci­ety, the pris­ing open of the wealth gap into one of the widest in the world, with the 73 mil­lion mem­bers of the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party mostly at the top of the ma­te­rial tree.

He­witt re­calls an ad­ver­tise­ment in a Guangzhou news­pa­per, ‘‘ in which a real-es­tate de­vel­oper proudly pro­moted its lat­est exclusive res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment by sim­ply em­bla­zon­ing’’ Deng’s slo­gan across the page.

He­witt, a 42-year-old Bri­ton, stud­ied Chi­nese at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity, then went to China, where he has worked for the BBC and writ­ten for a range of pub­li­ca­tions in­clud­ing The Guardian and The Far East­ern Eco­nomic Re­view. He has been based for some time in Shang­hai and his book, while rang­ing widely in its sce­nar­ios, re­volves chiefly around life in that ex­traor­di­nary city of 18 mil­lion peo­ple, which dur­ing the 1990s re­gained the zest and much also of the spice for which it be­came glob­ally renowned a cen­tury ago.

He­witt fo­cuses on the ra­pid­ity of it all: ‘‘ It’s as though China has un­der­gone many of the changes and up­heavals seen in West­ern so­ci­eties in the half-cen­tury af­ter the Sec­ond World War com­pressed into just 10 or 15 years — and with a dose of the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion thrown in for good mea­sure.’’

China, how­ever, has had a lot of catch­ing up to do. De­spite the rewrit­ing of its 20th-cen­tury his­tory by Maoists and Mao-ad­mir­ers across the world, the coun­try slipped back­wards in many re­spects af­ter the Com­mu­nist Party won the civil war against the Kuom­intang or Na­tion­al­ists in 1949. For three decades the party that still rules, un­ac­count­able and vir­tu­ally un­chal­lenged, held China back while its neigh­bours — first Ja­pan, then South Korea, Hong Kong, Tai­wan and much of South­east Asia — sur­passed it. The liv­ing stan­dards of those neigh­bours re­main much higher and now, be­cause of in­creas­ingly wide­spread for­eign travel, every­one knows it, hence the in­ten­sity of this con­tin­u­ing ‘‘ rush to mod­ernise everyday life’’.

He­witt does not dwell long on anal­y­sis, but es­corts the reader from one scene to an­other, one per­son to the next. His themes are em­bod­ied in the peo­ple to whom he in­tro­duces us. They in­clude as­pi­ra­tional con­sumers, viewed from in­side IKEA stores that are the world’s big­gest ex­cept for the home base in Stock­holm.

There are losers, such as older work­ers in sta­te­owned en­ter­prises cast aside by the cor­po­rati­sa­tion re­forms of Premier Zhu Rongji, who smashed the ‘‘ iron rice bowl’’ of jobs for life.

He­witt in­tro­duces us to the ‘‘ half-open’’ me­dia, us­ing the ex­am­ples of Guangzhou-based trou­ble­mak­ing South­ern Metropo­lis News, whose gen­eral man­ager was re­leased a year ago af­ter four years in jail on a du­bi­ous cor­rup­tion charge, and of the now per­va­sive in­ter­net.

We meet mem­bers of the con­tem­po­rary youth he calls the ‘‘ me gen­er­a­tion’’, known to some of their el­ders as the kua­diao yi dai , the ‘‘ col­lapsed gen­er­a­tion’’, for their claimed lack of be­liefs and morals com­pared with the more ide­al­is­tic youth of the 1980s whose apoth­e­o­sis came in Tianan­men Square in 1989, fol­lowed by a rapid shift to some­what cyn­i­cal op­por­tunism.

He­witt de­scribes ed­u­ca­tion as a na­tional ob­ses­sion but one stripped of sen­ti­ment. He asks real-es­tate con­sul­tant Richard Li in the as­tound­ing new south­ern city of Shen­zhen, whether his two-year-old daugh­ter at­tends her bilin­gual kinder­garten, English and Chi­nese, full-time. ‘‘ Oh no,’’ Li says, ‘‘ we still have to take her there at eight in the morn­ing and fetch her at five in the evening’’.

We visit ru­ral China, where 700 mil­lion of the 1.3 bil­lion pop­u­la­tion still live, where the Chi­nese revo­lu­tion be­gan, and where we en­counter within the beau­ti­ful land­scape of south­ern An­hui prov­ince, 15-year-old Zhu Youfu, a boy with heart Rowan Callick is The Aus­tralian’s Asia-Pa­cific ed­i­tor. and liver prob­lems. His med­i­cal fees cost dou­ble the av­er­age wage of a lo­cal farmer; his an­guished fa­ther is a lo­cal farmer, and the fam­ily has to pay all the costs de­spite prom­ises of as­sis­tance from the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

He­witt presents the grow­ing aware­ness of con­sumer rights and the dif­fi­cult de­vel­op­ment of civil so­ci­ety, an is­sue un­der­lined since He­witt’s book by the catas­tro­phe of the me­lamine-in-milk scan­dal that poi­soned thou­sands of ba­bies last year.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists strug­gle to re­tain ves­tiges of old China as vir­tu­ally ev­ery city is made over, while He­witt also de­scribes the evo­lu­tion of con­tem­po­rary art and movies.

He out­lines the grip­ping strug­gle for, and con­test be­tween, val­ues and be­liefs, as the Com­mu­nist Party sets about ‘‘ try­ing to fill what many see as the moral void left by the shat­ter­ing of so many of the old cer­tain­ties’’, while the for­mal re­li­gions, led by Chris­tian­ity and Bud­dhism, have stolen a march, a long march, on the party, among younger Chi­nese es­pe­cially.

The long­est chap­ter, and the best, is ti­tled ‘‘ the great pro­le­tar­ian sex­ual revo­lu­tion’’.

He in­tro­duces us here to Ai Xiaom­ing, an ‘‘ open-faced, friendly woman in her 50s’’, orig­i­nally an ex­pert in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture, who es­tab­lished a sex and gen­der ed­u­ca­tion fo­rum on the cam­pus of Sun Yat-sen Uni­ver­sity in Guangzhou, where she is a pro­fes­sor.

In 2003 she and her stu­dents staged the first and last Chi­nese-lan­guage per­for­mance of the play by Amer­i­can writer Eve Ensler, The Vagina Mono­logues . ‘‘ Some stu­dents brought their par­ents to watch it — and de­spite some ini­tial em­bar­rass­ment, it was rap­tur­ously re­ceived.’’ But at­tempts since then to stage it in Bei­jing and Shang­hai have been thwarted by the au­thor­i­ties.

He­witt also ush­ers in, touch­ingly, a straight­backed man from the coun­try­side, Mr Sun, whose son had moved to the city. He and his wife, sad­dened that he had not mar­ried when so many of their friends al­ready had grand­chil­dren, dis­cov­ered even­tu­ally the shock­ing truth: their son was gay. ‘‘ Mr Sun ini­tially had mur­der­ous thoughts. But he was per­suaded to see sense by his wife, and his son’s friends too. ‘ Once you get over the shock, you can come to terms with it,’ he smiles. ‘ You can’t not have a son!’ ’’ He has now set up China’s first tele­phone hot­line for other par­ents of gay chil­dren.

Main­tain­ing nar­ra­tive pace while pro­vid­ing suf­fi­cient space for such scenes — which form the book’s high­lights — to come alive is not an easy trick to pull off, as the au­thor’s switch of tenses, from past to present to past con­tin­u­ous, in­di­cates.

But this book over­all is a ter­rific in­tro­duc­tion to con­tem­po­rary China, and to Shang­hai, which is the home town of He­witt’s wife Haichen, and where ‘‘ I too have now put down some roots’’, as he says. His book, how­ever, high­lights the rest­less­ness that has be­come such a fea­ture of China to­day and the root­less­ness into which this threat­ens to de­gen­er­ate, a strange fate for the world’s old­est con­tin­u­ous civil­i­sa­tion, and one that a dose of state-sanc­tioned Con­fu­cian­ism is un­likely to an­swer.

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