Grassroots insights into a vast upheaval
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.